Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: california

The Ripple Effect of California’s Wildfires

Earlier this month I gave a presentation, Dynamics of Recovery: Navigating the Long Haul at the International Association of Emergency Managers Encore Conference. This was the first time the professional association had done a mid-year two-day virtual summit featuring follow up presentations by select speakers from last year’s conference. (You can view my 2020 presentation on Navigating the Transition from Response to Recovery here—it will be a few more months before I can release this month’s presentation.)

I was excited for the opportunity to expand on recovery after all the research I’ve been doing for my Ruin to Rebirth book project and the trends I’ve been seeing after recent disasters in California. One of the things I chose to focus on in this presentation was how we really need to broaden the definition of disaster survivors.  When it comes to determining eligibility for disaster aid, FEMA tends to rely heavily on statistics of damaged / destroyed homes and the percentage of uninsured losses in a community. The need for simple metrics is understandable when you must make comparisons between communities to determine the areas of greatest need. However, this approach is a drastic oversimplification of the impact disasters have on communities. In this article I will discuss the ripple effect of California’s wildfires as background for an upcoming article on new ideas for measuring recovery and how we can broaden the definition of disaster survivors.

A screenshot of California’s air quality map on 8/20/20 captured from Purple Air.

Smoke’s Influence on Air Quality

When discussing wildfires, the influence of smoke on air quality is a key issue that drives disaster impacts way beyond the burn area. While the direct physical impacts of flames are limited even in large fires, smoke quickly becomes a regional or even statewide affair. In California’s 2020 wildfires air quality impacts were observed hundreds of miles from the burn areas for nearly an entire month. When air quality is poor it ignites a domino effect of negative consequences for industries—prompting closures at schools, outdoor retail, recreation, and tourism, and placing severe limitations on agriculture, construction, and landscaping.

Poor air quality has also been linked to dire health impacts. During widespread smoke incidents, both emergency room visits and deaths of elderly people increase dramatically. While the official fatality count for the 2020 wildfires is 26, a Stanford study estimates that this number could be up to 50 times higher—up to 3,000–when smoke impacts are factored into the equation. “These are hidden deaths. These are people who were probably already sick but for whom air pollution made them even sicker,” Marshall Burke, Deputy Director of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment told the San Jose Mercury News.

With chronic respiratory disease such as asthma on the rise in recent years, likely due to ambient air pollution, this is especially troubling for the health consequences that prolonged and frequent wildfires could have on younger populations too. The 2020 wildfires also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that there was an even greater vulnerable population with compromised respiratory systems due to the disease.

2017 Thomas Fire: Economic Impacts

As you might remember from previous articles, I was heavily involved in the response and recovery to the Thomas Fire in Ventura County through my role with CalOES. So I’d like to share some impacts that the Thomas Fire had on Ventura County to illustrate how deeply the community was disrupted beyond the modest 1,000 or so homes that were lost. These social and economic impacts begin to help us understand the magnitude of the ripple throughout the community, much of it instigated by smoke.

The Thomas Fire began on December 4th, the height of the holiday shopping season for many of Ventura’s small retail businesses. In Southern California’s ideal coastal climate, many businesses are located in outdoor shopping malls that were forced to close due to poor air quality during a critical time period in the shopping season. It was estimated that retailers in the impacted and adjacent areas would lose 20% of their annual revenue for 2017 and continue to feel losses into 2018 due to the fire.

Agriculture makes up a large percentage of Ventura’s local economy. As smoke permeated the valleys below the flame engulfed mountains, it was unsafe for outdoor farmwork to continue and many of the community’s most vulnerable were out of work during the holiday season. No workers meant no crops and thus agriculture suffered too. Crops were also directly impacted by the heat of the fire. Avocados are one of the top 10 agricultural exports in Ventura’s $2.2 billion dollar industry.  The 2017 yield for avocados was decimated by the fire. But the impacts of the high heat were not limited to the current fruits, as it also caused a massive die off of the avocado trees, which would destroy business for years to come.

Tourism is another major industry in Ventura county. The picturesque location linking the Pacific Ocean with agricultural plains and oak covered hillsides makes for a perfect getaway backdrop. The Ojai Valley is reliant on tourism with about 31% of all jobs in that industry. Nestled in the rolling hills it is an ideal spot for retreats–for both business and pleasure. The Thomas Fire caused the Ojai Valley Inn, one of the major employers and economic drivers for the community, to close for two weeks as most of the Ojai Valley was evacuated when it was entirely surrounded by fire. Smaller hotels and businesses in Ojai were also closed. These closures caused many hospitality employees to lose hours or suffer unpaid weeks off during a time when most were reliant on their paychecks to give their families a good holiday season.

In all three of these industries, the majority of workers are hourly. Due to the uncertainty of the crisis, most employers were simply reducing hours rather than laying workers off, thus the true impact on jobs remains unknown since it is not reflected in unemployment data. This also made it difficult for workers to plan financially or access unemployment benefits since they were not technically unemployed.

School Closures

Due to air quality issues in the Thomas Fire, most of the schools in Eastern Ventura County were closed for two weeks in December prior to their holiday break. As the nation has seen during the COVID-19 crisis, school closures have massive ripple effects in a community. When children are out of school, many parents are forced to stay home from work–often in sectors that are not well equipped for telework or in industries where they do not have sick or vacation time benefits to use. This puts additional financial strain and mental stress on families who are forced to adapt to a lifestyle where everyone is at home and parents are unable to earn income or work productively. Many low income families are also reliant on school lunches so school closures can increase hunger and food insecurity in the community.

During the 2020 wildfires, I was managing the California State University system’s response. Over the span of August to September, we had seven campuses close for at least one business day due to poor air quality. We also had at least 26 members of our CSU campus communities lose their homes due to the wildfire. Power outages, evacuations, and closures also influenced the ability of students and faculty to participate in online courses, which made up most of our academic offerings at the time due to the pandemic.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Displacement and Housing Impacts

Prior to the fire, Ventura had already been experiencing a housing crisis. Rates of homelessness were on the rise due to increasing rents and plummeting vacancy rates. Ventura County was in the top ten least affordable housing markets in the nation and only about a quarter of the County’s population could afford a median priced home. The vacancy rate in Ojai was less than one percent and Ventura’s was less than 2%. So even if you were in that lucky 25% who could afford to own a home, they were incredibly difficult to come by.

The fire only exacerbated the housing crisis in Ventura. While over 900 housing units were destroyed, the County knew unofficially that many of these units housed multiple families, sharing space to alleviate the high cost of rent. There were also over 200 outbuildings destroyed. Although FEMA would not count these as homes in the certified count, it was known that many of them were occupied by extremely low income farm workers. Since they were not technically residential units these people would not have access to many of the benefits that other disaster survivors would.

Another way that the housing market shifted after the fire was through the displacement of renters. While the fire itself destroyed many large beautiful homes in the hills, renters in Ventura city came to bear the burden of seeking new housing. This was because homeowners in the destroyed neighborhoods owned more than one property. So, when their primary residences were destroyed, these landlords relocated to their rental units while rebuilding their homes. This meant that renters who had been paying month to month were now given notice and had to join the incredibly difficult hunt for housing in Ventura. They were an entirely untrackable population who were deeply impacted by the fire, having lost their place of residence but would have no access to any survivor benefits and would simply be on their own to fight for housing.

Looking Forward

To really understand this dynamic, complex, and lengthy phase of the disaster cycle, we need to broaden our perspective and consider the far-reaching impacts of disaster on our communities. In my next article, I will discuss new ideas for measuring recovery that go beyond the simple metrics of acres burned and homes lost.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs: A California Emergency Manager’s Perspective

Last week, California experienced the largest Public Safety Power Shut Off (PSPS) to date when Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), its largest investor owned utility cut power to approximately 738,000 customers in 35 counties. One of which was Humboldt County, where I grew up and still have many friends and family members, which lost power for 24 hours with one day’s notice. Another was Tuolumne County, where my sister-in-law and her family live, where customers were plunged into darkness for nearly 4 days. While I have been dealing with the new reality of PSPS as an emergency manager for more than a year, most people are only learning of the protocol and its significance this month as a result of the massive outage.

I wanted to take the opportunity while there is public attention on this issue to write an opinion piece on PSPS and its ramifications. While I am currently employed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), I want to be clear that what I’ve written here is my individual opinion and does not represent the opinion of my employer. However, I do want to commend Governor Newsom on his letter earlier this week to the California Public Utilities Commission and echo some of his sentiments that the scope and duration of this PSPS was unacceptable and executed with astounding neglect and lack of preparation on behalf of PG&E.

Wildfire destruction in Ventura, CA after the December 2017 Thomas Fire, caused by SCE electrical equipment.

What is PSPS?

Public Safety Power Shut Offs, or ‘PSPS’ as they are affectionately called in our industry, are a new tactic employed by investor owned power companies in California to proactively shut off power in specific areas during times of high wildfire risk. While San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been practicing this for years, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have just started implementing PSPS in the last couple years, due mainly to the fall out from recent devastating fires in Sonoma, Butte and Ventura Counties that were determined to be started by electrical equipment. This allows the companies to play it safe when weather conditions are primed for wildfires and avoid potential future liability that could be incurred through wildfires caused by electrical equipment. They closely monitor the impending weather conditions utilizing their own staff meteorologists, then send field staff out to the most fire prone locations as the weather event commences. When localized weather equipment and field staff concur that dangerous conditions exist, they proactively shut off power to select circuits in vulnerable areas.

People generally aren’t too happy about this new protocol—it means that perfectly good groceries will rot in refrigerators and cranky Californians will fumble with flashlights in sweltering homes on the state’s hottest days. For what reason? Will this really stop wildfires from starting? Great questions, I’ll attempt to address this below. It’s important to note that although many people are seeing ‘CalOES mandated’ with some of the notifications on the power outage, CalOES does not mandate the power companies to turn off power. CalOES mandates that if they are going to do this, that they notify both customers and local governments in the affected areas in a timely manner.

Long lines of cars awaiting gas at a station in Eureka, CA in advance of the October 2019 PSPS event. Photo by Kali Cozyris via the North Coast Journal.

Community Repercussions

The highly publicized widespread planned outages allowed us a view into the current level of California’s preparedness, and it didn’t look good. In Humboldt County, gas station lines were extremely lengthy until they transitioned into being eerily empty as many stations ran out of gas. Grocery stores were swarmed with crowds until the shelves were cleared of water, canned goods, toilet paper and other essentials. Some stores offered steep discounts on perishable refrigerated and frozen foods that were likely to be destroyed in the extended outage. There was a general sense of mayhem as people went into a frenzy trying to prepare for a few days without power. This shows us that in general, people didn’t feel that what they had at home was adequate to comfortably survive even a few days. This is not a good sign for being prepared for the Big One. Fortunately, it’s a great time for emergency managers to capitalize on this by encouraging participation in the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill later this week.

The Arcata plaza under a starlight sky with no power on in the city during the October 2019 PSPS event. Photo by Dave Wilson via the Lost Coast Outpost.

The upside to this is that people were forced to give disaster—or living in this alternate universe without power—their thoughts and attention. It is so common for people to push it out of their minds by saying they’ll prepare next month or that disaster won’t happen in their lifetimes. When they knew that the outage was impending, people considered their current commodities and took action. While a full tank of a gas or stash of canned goods will be fleeting, some of the items procured will have a lasting impact and will boost overall personal preparedness. Perhaps people will be more likely to purchase generators to mitigate the darkness of future outages. Thinking through the scenario and discussing it with family members is also going to pay dividends toward the creation of a family emergency plan, even if it’s conversational and focused mainly on power outages. Hopefully it can start the train of thought toward greater emergencies and what to do if gas or sewer systems are also not working. Maybe in the future, people will recall the long gas station lines and remember what a precious commodity fuel really is so they’ll keep their tanks at least half full so that emergencies won’t limit their mobility.

Refrigerated beverages that went to waste after the October 2019 PSPS event from a grocery store in Humboldt County.

The outages had a big impact on small businesses that did not have generators. In Humboldt County most of these businesses were forced to close and lose revenue for the duration of the outage. Gas stations closed such as the Chevron in Eureka where my brother works and even the Safeway in Arcata where my mom works as a result of their generator malfunctioning. Excess product that needed refrigeration became waste and money was lost on these products. While corporations like Safeway and Chevron will be just fine, a PSPS event can wreak havoc on small businesses that are often teetering on the brink of profitability in rural areas such as Humboldt or Tuolumne.

My current stash over 100+ ounces of breastmilk. It has taken me about 2 months to accumulate what’s currently in my freezer.

As with most disasters, populations with access and functional needs will be the hardest hit with PSPS. Lower income people who cannot afford to refill their freezers and refrigerators with food staples that they’ve been depending on were adversely impacted by this event. Hourly employees of shuttered businesses lost wages when they could no longer go into work. As a breastfeeding mother, I could be very impacted by an outage. I would be horrified to lose my supply of frozen milk that I have been building for months—it is literally priceless, produced by my own body for my infant and cannot be replaced.

A screenshot of PG&E’s Tweet last week encouraging those with medical needs to have preparedness plans.

Perhaps the most important consideration of all for PSPS, is those who need electricity for medical reasons. This includes those dependent on oxygen, dialysis or CPAP machines, motorized mobility equipment or insulin that needs to be refrigerated. A power shut off can be catastrophic for people with these needs. PG&E was outspoken on social media during last week’s outage that these patients need to develop their own emergency plans and be prepared. Is this an acceptable stance to take when lives are at stake because a power company wants to reduce their own liability?

Impact on Emergency Management

An EOC action plan from the Inland Regional Operations Center for last week’s event.

For local emergency management agencies, PSPS means more planning calls and more Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activations in anticipation of possible emergencies rather than in response to real emergencies. While this can be great practice in activation protocols and running through the process for smaller jurisdictions that don’t get much action, it can also become a huge headache quickly. And it can present a level of danger—if staff are already tired from being activated for a forced power outage, does it make them more capable or less capable to respond swiftly and competently when real disaster strikes? I know that at the Regional level, activations for PSPS exhaust our resources quickly. CalOES deploys Emergency Services Coordinators to any activated counties and also to utility EOC’s. If a real wildfire emergency occurs and shifts need to be filled overnight and to staff our Regional EOC, then we quickly begin to run out of personnel resources and must rely on overtired staff who would’ve otherwise been refreshed and ready to go when the real fire ignited. I can personally testify to this happening in November 2018 when the Camp and Hill / Woolsey fires began as we had been in PSPS mode all week. Although I’m out on maternity leave, I have also heard that this was the case last week with the October 2019 Saddle Ridge fire. These types of activations will become more and more common, with Southern California Edison already moving into a constant state of EOC activation for every weekend through wildfire season in 2019.

The other drawback is that the capability of communicating important emergency evacuation information with the public can be greatly diminished if power is out. There are many ways for wildfires to ignite and cutting the power simply won’t mitigate all fire start potential. So if a fire starts a different way and begins to impact a community in the dark, how can emergency management quickly notify them? Television media won’t reach them and cell phones may have varying levels of battery power depending on outage duration and community access to generators. Sending first responders door to door is a very resource intensive option that can be slower than other methods. This presents a greater danger to these communities.

One per county.

PG&E committed to opening one ‘Community Resource Center’ per county with a maximum of 100 people to provide device charging capabilities and controlled temperatures. While I appreciate the gesture, I find it almost laughable that these centers would even begin to meet needs. In many of the 35 impacted counties, it would be quite a drive for those most at risk in the more rural mountainous areas to the resource center in the more populous part of the county. In Humboldt County, the resource center opened hours after power had been restored for much of the county, with the exception of the distant rural areas. This quickly becomes a need that local emergency management becomes involved with by opening additional cooling centers or resource centers. These centers further stretch staff resources that would be needed as shelter workers if a wildfire hits.

As stewards of the whole community, local emergency managers must also plan for the needs of the medically vulnerable populations previously mentioned. Since many do not have the resources or knowledge to fully prepare themselves as PG&E suggests, emergency managers try to fill this gap by working with public health to identify and check on the well-being of these populations during outages. As you can imagine, this can quickly become an information management challenge and a losing battle as the number of people impacted increases.

Does it work?

In short, PSPS will never be able to stop all fires from starting and it is impossible to prove success with this protocol because we will never know if electrical equipment would’ve started a fire during the time of the outage. From my observations, it has already not worked on November 8th, 2018 when the Woolsey Fire started from electrical equipment during a time that Southern California Edison had actively been implementing PSPS protocols all week. The Camp Fire also ignited that day and was started by electrical equipment although I’m not sure if that area was being analyzed for PSPS that day or not.

Even with the best analysis available, I believe that it is impossible to know exactly where and when a fire will begin. Wind and weather conditions can shift in an instant. We all know that weather predictions are not all that accurate all the time (sorry NWS friends) and these predictions are what PSPS is solely based around. I also do not believe that shutting off power to massive areas as was conducted by PG&E last week is the solution. So many of these areas never had any fire danger, including the one nearest and dearest to my heart, coastal Humboldt County. My parents had wanted to run their heater because it was actually chilly, cold and plenty humid, with overnight temperatures down to the 40’s in their home a mile from the Pacific Ocean in October. But they couldn’t because their power was off for fire danger. Putting so many people in the dark who are nowhere near the danger zones seems to me to be more of an attention-grabbing political ploy than an actual life safety necessity. I believe that the leadership of California’s investor owned utilities hope that these massive outages will create political pressure to legislate them out of liability for future fires in exchange for keeping the power on.

As evidenced by last week’s outage, PG&E was not prepared for the level of customer service and information needs that their planned outage created. Humboldt County was not on the list of impacted counties until the day before the power outage occurred. The notification process to individual customers was subpar, with many complaints of never receiving the notification. The company’s website crashed and customers were unable to gain information as to whether the outage would impact them. Clearly, there is much work to be done before the company claim to be prepared to undertake such a massive planned outage again.

How can we stop CA wildfires?

Damage in Ventura, CA after Dec 2017 Thomas Fire.

While shutting off power may stop electrical equipment driven wildfires from starting, there are other measures that I think would could be bring similar success without such adverse impacts on populations. For one, PG&E should begin by focusing their efforts on updating their infrastructure to upgrade transmission lines and increase grid segmentation so that if they choose to continue with PSPS in the future they will have the capability to be much more targeted. Such incredibly large swaths of land were impacted by last week’s outage and this could have been avoided if they had the capability to segment their grid to focus impacts the way that Southern California Edison and SDG&E do.

Microgrid graphic courtesy of Berkeley Labs via Yale Climate Connection.

Additionally, the impacts of PSPS could be mitigated by investments in microgrid technology. A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources that typically operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional centralized grid but can disconnect and maintain operation autonomously. An excellent example of a success story for this type of innovation was revealed in Humboldt County last week when the Blue Lake Rancheria’s microgrid continued to function while the rest of the county went dark. The tribe has been a huge proponent of resiliency planning and has become a leader in tribal emergency management, even bringing FEMA’s emergency management advanced academy to Humboldt earlier this year! During the outage, the tribe’s gas station remained functioning and their facilities provided access to electricity and warmth for local families. The tribe also worked with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to house eight people who relied on electricity for medical needs in its casino—an outstanding example of an intergovernmental and quasi public-private partnership. In the darkness of PSPS, this mini success shines a light on potential future technology advances that could alleviate hardship.

Unfortunately, it will not be such an easy fix as shutting off power to decrease wildfire frequency. California experienced a prolonged drought from 2011 – 2015 that was the driest since record keeping began in 1885. The amount of dry vegetation in the state’s wildlands coupled with the devastating effects of bark beetles creates a massive amount of fuel that is ripe for burning. Additionally, the state continues to experience record breaking temperatures and an increase in the number of extremely hot days. When humidity dips and high winds commence, massive wildfires are born. While the Cedar Fire of 2003 was California’s largest wildfire for 14 years, the Thomas Fire (2017) only held that title for a mere 8 months before the Mendocino Complex fire overtook it. These disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate induced conditions. Examining the drivers of climate change and taking action to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the environment is one avenue of working to reduce wildfires.

Image of homes at the Wildland Urban Interface from US Fire Administration via FEMA.

Another is to reduce further development into the Wildland Urban Interface, the area where suburban developments encroach into traditionally wild environments. California has more people and homes located in the WUI than any other state in the continental US—close to 4.5 million homes and 11 million people. This creates a new type of ignition ready fuel for small brushfires to really take flight. While communities continue to expand outward into the hills and the state faces a housing affordability crisis, policymakers and community developers must consider the price that we will pay when wildfire strikes these areas and reconsider the decisions to continue to infringe on these wild spaces.

Until we are ready to truly address these greater issues, no amount of PSPS will solve California’s wildfire crisis. Is it worth the death of a medical patient dependent on electricity to possibly save the lives and property of many from a wildfire that does not yet exist? While policy makers must grapple with these decisions, California emergency managers must react to the new normal in the wake of devastating climate change induced disasters and rise to this challenge.