The Week That Was

by AVA News Service, October 18, 2017

AS OF LATE MONDAY, 433 residential structures have been destroyed by fire in Mendocino County, all of them in Redwood and Potter valleys. Eight people have died in the fires as forensic searches for more fatalities commence. 38,000 acres have burned. The fires are about half contained but now burning in mostly unpopulated areas of Potter Valley, north of Ukiah.

SHERIFF ALLMAN deserves high marks for keeping misinformation to a minimum as he coordinated the massive and complicated fire and rescue effort which, as of Monday, is ongoing. Allman has done a first-rate job in the face of a fast-moving series of disasters.

AS OF MONDAY, the REDWOOD COMPLEX FIRE was about half contained with the most troublesome area remaining being northeast of Potter Valley.

JANGLING ALREADY JANGLED NERVES, a 4.0 earthquake centered near devastated Redwood Valley jolted inland Mendocino County about 4:30 Friday afternoon. The earthquake was described by the USGS as "shallow," less than a third of a mile down, which means there is less distance to attenuate its impacts, and according to USGS was likely felt all the way from Fort Bragg, down to Cloverdale clear across to the Central Valley.

THERE ARE STILL no solid numbers for the number of marijuana farms lost to the fires, and the industry itself in various reports here are between 3,000 to 7,000 marijuana farms in Sonoma County. In Mendocino it’s estimated that there are 7,000 to 10,000 farms. Hezekiah Allen, often a spokesperson for the industry, told reporters, “If you’re just talking piles of ashes, I think we may be looking at 30 or 40 farms destroyed. But the broader regional impact will have thousands of farms seeing reduced values, with some having to destroy their crop. Any airborne contamination is going to stick to those buds. And there’s a lot of toxins in that smoke.”

THE BEST, most timely daily reporting I've seen or heard has come from the Ukiah Daily Journal's facebook page by Chris Pugh backed up by Carol Brodsky. MSP has been good (as always) and KZYX also seemed timely from what I heard of it the first early Monday morning of the disaster. The out-of-town papers have done a better job than the Press Democrat in covering the unprecedented catastrophe.

A WEEK LATER, stories of individual heroics are common, but we like the one about Redwood Valley guy, a heavy equipment operator who, ignoring Get Out Now orders, jumped on his biggest Cat and, with the flames bearing down, carved large fire breaks around his and his neighbor's properties, saving them all.

AMONG the thousands of people who went above and beyond, count Barry Bonds, home run champ, who spent hours ferrying people from the imperiled Silvarado Country Club in Napa County.

A FRIEND COMPLAINED, “It would appear that Hampton Inn, Ukiah, may be taking advantage of the refugees if my experience Sunday night of their lowest rate. Monday night’s rate looks to be near $30 above a normal Sunday night.”

"RATE OF SPREAD" seems to have replaced percentage of containment in CalFire's lexicon of fire sizes and relative containment. CalFire reported late Tuesday afternoon that the rate of spread for the Redwood Complex Fire was zero, but a few minutes later came the announcement of an evacuation order in previously untouched areas of Potter Valley — Van Arsdale north of the Eel River and Cave Creek off Tomki Road.

POT FARMERS in the Redwood Complex burn area were, of course, pretty much wiped out just at harvest. For them, a whole year's effort went up in flames, flames that were not contained even a little as of last Tuesday evening.

THE CITY OF WILLITS remained incommunicado for almost four days. Not that residents of the gateway to the redwood empire were being incinerated, it's that the flames have untethered them from cyber-space. I was surprised to learn that North County schools were closed because student cell phones were out, meaning, at least to school authorities, their young charges were somehow in danger. In danger of what? Being forced to read a book? The Sheriff said that he hoped temporary cell towers would be in place by the end of the day, which they were.

AS INVESTIGATORS probed how the “Wine Country” fires began, weather records show that PG&E lines fell in winds that were not nearly as strong as the utility company claimed. “This is classic PG&E — trying to spin things without first taking a look at the hard facts," said Burlingame attorney Frank Pitre. “The winds were well within the threshold of design standards. If they failed, this was a failure in their system.”

PAUL GULLIXSON is an editor at the Rose City daily: "My colleagues here at The Press Democrat have done a phenomenal job of telling the story during the past week of the greatest natural disaster to ever hit our home. They have told in detail the battles to save homes, businesses and lives from Sonoma to Geyserville to Calistoga. But what they haven’t done well — journalists rarely do — is tell their own story. In a nutshell, here is how this community nightmare unfolded for them."

IN FACT, reporting by the Chron and the distant LA Times has been far superior to that of Gullixson's seraglio. I further expect the PD will forego mention of why some subdivisions had been approved to be built without regard to future disasters.

TELEVISION STATIONS showed the same fire footage over and over again. Aerial photos of where fires were in relation to the affected communities would have been useful, but….

AN MSP READER NOTED: “The real problem is that many homeowners refuse to allow PG&E to cut any and all trees that can touch the line or if they fall hit the line. I have seen this first hand on my road in Willits but most of the times the storms come in the winter so when the trees knock down the lines no fires are started. PG&E used to be able to just cut the trees they wanted or disconnect the customer from the grid but that practice has been stopped also. My neighbor had a dead snag fir tree that sat 50 feet from the line and was over a 150 feet tall. PG&E fought with him for years to be allowed to take the tree down but he claimed it was beautiful and would not allow it. One winter storm the tree fell and it took out the high tension lines that ran through his property and the power was out for two days.”

MY LATE FRIEND, Joe Nielands, battled PG&E for years to re-establish the power monopoly as the public benefit utility it's supposed to be. PG&E remains public only in the sense that the entire public is dependent on it, as their execs rake in extravagant salaries and treat their alleged oversight trustees and largest corporate customers to the usual array of payoffs in the form of perks and rebates us saps don't get. In today's national context of crumbling infrastructure, under-grounding power lines is among the many upgrades that won't happen, along with the continued deterioration of the nation's roads, bridges, public buildings (unless they house elected officials), dams, railroads, levies, spillways, tunnels… But these fires that have devastated NorCal would not have happened if power lines had been buried, as they are in the rest of the "advanced" world.

WHEN THE FIRST REPORTS of multiple fires in Sonoma County poured in to Bay Area television Sunday night, with no mention of Mendocino County, emergency dispatchers were at the same time sending out fire crews to investigate downed PG&E power lines and exploding electrical transformers in the area, the East Bay Times reported. Personnel were reportedly sent out to at least 10 locations over a 90-minute period to look into sparking wires and other electrical-system problems. San Francisco-based utility PG&E and others in the state have been in the past found responsible for major destructive wildfires over power-line maintenance issues. The utility released a statement Tuesday night acknowledging the equipment issues over the weekend in Sonoma—reportedly caused by high “hurricane-strength” winds, which the winds weren’t—but noted that any broader questions about maintenance issues causing the area’s wildfires are at this point “highly speculative.” In April, PG&E was fined $8.3 million for a power-line maintenance problem that caused the September 2015 Butte Fire in Amador County.

MARK SCARAMELLA: I hate to be negative, but the PUC didn’t even get around to ordering PG&E to inspect and maintain their aging gas lines until after a big chunk of San Bruno went up in flames due to a gas leak. I doubt they’ll impose any new requirements, never mind how much destruction and death would be prevented, or how much more secure the utility lines would be. At present, the only way I know of to even consider undergrounding utility lines is through an extremely long and difficult grant process and, as Gualala discovered a few years ago, even figuring out where to put the trench can become a local controversy.

FOR US, the absolutely most wrenching tragedy of all was this one:

When the Shepherd family told us at 1am that they were fleeing their Potter Valley mountain due to fire, we never imagined the tragedy to which they would fall victim on October 9, 2017.

 

We may never know all the details, and ultimately, right now, they don’t matter. Only the lives of our loved ones matter now.

We know they tried to escape down the driveway in a car. We know the car caught on fire and they left on foot.

Our sweet boy...our brave, strong, talented boy...Kai Logan Shepherd, 14 years old, had already succumbed to the fire when he was found on the driveway. We are utterly devastated.

Sara and Kressa were found on the driveway badly burned and disoriented and brought to safety. We don’t know how Jon got to the hospital or how he was found.

Sara and Kressa both sustained burns on 60% of their bodies. Jon sustained burns on 45% of his body. All are in different burn units surrounded by exceptional and compassionate staff and family members. Their conditions are changing every minute. No one is out of the woods yet and the path to recovery will be long.

The home they built is gone.

The life they knew is gone.

Kai Logan is gone.

Our hearts are broken.

More than anything though, Kressa, Sara, and Jon will need every ounce of our communal strength and hope.

Medical needs will be substantial.

We will need help with memorial service costs for Kai Logan.

Retrofitting Mom and Dad’s house (Thank goodness its standing) to accommodate convalescence and rehabilitation will be necessary.

Travel and accomodation costs for the family may also be substantial.

And ultimately, our main focus will be helping the Shepherds rebuild a life.

Right now, we will reach out with specific needs as necessary. We’re still reeling and trying to handle the logistics of such a multi-faceted tragedy.

Please also understand at this time, we do not know how much Kressa, Sara, and Jon remember. We do not know if they know about Kai. In any case, their healing and emotional health is of paramount importance. They are not yet strong enough to receive this information, let alone communicate. Please respect this sensitive information.

To donate go to: generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/holding-up-hope-for-the-shepherds

OF ALL the terrible losses suffered in Sonoma County over the past few days, the place I most hoped was safe was the Di Rosa Preserve, the most interesting art collection in California, far superior in variety and general interest than, for instance, SFMOMA, San Francisco headquarters for huge globs of stuff they not only got suckered into paying big money for, they display with explanations of what we're supposed to be looking at. If you think "Sierra Stone" — a couple hundred rocks arranged in a V and occupying an entire room — is art, get on a southbound bus right now. The di Rosa, by way of contrast, is a wonderful collection of all kinds of art — big art, medium art, little art, kinetic art, oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, the last exhibited inside and outside, and all of it collected by the late di Rosa himself, a wealthy aesthete with a muy (Mexican for 'very') cool eye. He wrote art reviews for the Chronicle up through the 1950s, before snooty, emaciated young people dressed in black took over America's public museums. If you want to get your kid off on the correct art foot, take him to the di Rosa on the Sonoma-Napa county line.

PG&E GAS LINES that were turned off will need to be safety checked house by house before connections can be re-lit after gas is turned back on.

SHERIFF ALLMAN called the fires “The biggest disaster in Mendocino County history since Jonestown.” Jonestown, however, was much more a disaster for Oakland where many of its victims were from. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the brick buildings then standing in the county, but the county’s population was much smaller than it is now. The Lightning Fires of 2008 were dangerous but were stopped before they did much damage.

“INVESTIGATIONS are underway. All reports will be investigated, no matter how far-fetched,” the Sheriff promised.

A “MEDIA OUTLET” reported a facebook rumor and created problems for responders,” said the Sheriff. “Please be careful with them. People might react badly.” We wondered which media outlet, but Facebook is synonymous with misinformation. Stick to MSP, the Ukiah Daily Journal’s Facebook page, the Sheriff’s own website and CalFire’s website for accurate information.

THE FAKE NEWS the Sheriff may have been referring to said Howard Hospital in Willits was being evacuated. It wasn’t. It was, and presumably is prepared to evacuate, but operated normally throughout. The fires did not reach Willits.

GOVERNOR BROWN said last week that Global Warming is ushering in an age of catastrophes. Brown didn’t say that specific measures can make these events less catastrophic. Undergrounding power lines would prevent major fires. Strategically placed warning sirens, beefed up neighborhood watches and so on would help lessen loss of life.

DAVE SMITH, a resident of Redwood Valley, wrote last Wednesday afternoon: “I'm on Bel Arbres just south west of all the Redwood Valley fires, next to the original Fetzer property. They stopped the fire that jumped the freeway down into Reeves Canyon. If the winds pick up too much and come out of the north and restart it, it could sweep through the Greenfield community and down towards us. We’ve had time to transfer some furniture, etc. to relatives in Ukiah, so we're just waiting it out…”

THE MIGHTY AVA was unable to deliver papers to the Redwood Valley Market last Wednesday. Deputies said the market was closed, and no one was being allowed to enter the community.

3PM WEDNESDAY. People in the northern region of Fitch Mountain overlooking Healdsburg were being told to be ready to evacuate. Calistoga was being evacuated. Geyserville was being evacuated. The fires never did get into these communities.

DAVE EVANS of the Navarro Store said Wednesday that he’d pumped more gas since Sunday night when the fires started than on any holiday weekend he's experienced in 20 years as owner of the store. He said that between displaced people and inland detours, and the very long lines and closed service stations to the south, his two pumps have been busier than they've ever been.

KZYX has been quite good at timely updates on the moving disaster. As print-oriented people, we go to print for information, but we've been told many times all week that KZYX is on the case!

Heron

THE NATIONAL GUARD and Humboldt County police assisted local authorities in Mendocino County. One tweeker was arrested in Redwood Valley for looting but there were no reports of houses burglarized. An old guy named John Heron of Redwood Valley was arrested for recklessly discharging a firearm.

MENDO has been declared a federal disaster area. FEMA opened an assistance center at Mendocino College, which functions as a one stop shop for shelter and services.

PHONE SCAMMERS were offering to take money and deliver it to victims. The Sheriff said to tell them to call the Sheriff’s office.

SUPERVISOR McCOWEN vowed that the Supes are committed to see that local government assistance is available. The Supervisors will discuss more ways to assist victims on Tuesday.

THE IN-COUNTY LIBRARY SYSTEM will give priority computer access to victims for FEMA applications. Permit streamlining for reconstruction will be a priority of the Planning and Building Department.

NORTH COAST OPPORTUNITIES at 467-3236 offers quickest financial assistance for fire victims.

JENNIFER POOLE OF THE WILLITS WEEKLY: “Good lord is right. So far Willits has been lucky. No phones, no internet for several days is pretty damn scary. I had car radio, and that’s all. Radios were sold out in Willits early Monday morning. We drove around a lot listening to the radio and looking at fire vantage points on Monday and Tuesday. I have not driven south, I have not seen the devastation in Redwood Valley, except in videos/photos. CalFire said Thursday Redwood fire end towards Willits is ‘holding very well and looking very good.’ They keep saying the winds blowing from the north is good for Willits and bad for Potter Valley. Still worried about winds tomorrow night. So good to hear lots of bombers yesterday and today! I am listening to the afternoon press conference right now, and Allman is saying he flew the fire this morning and, this isn’t a quote, but he said the devastation was worse than even he thought, and the current numbers of structures burned are going to go up significantly, as will the numbers of fatalities. Well, PG&E came and turned on the gas here just a while ago – PG&E turned off the gas to Redwood Valley for obvious reasons and apparently we’re on the same pipe, so we got turned off, too – so I’m going to cook myself some dinner. Keep your fingers crossed for us, but again, so far, Willits and greater Willits is mostly OK.”

LOTS of people in Redwood Valley and Potter Valley are wondering why their fire departments didn't set off their sirens at the onset of the disaster rather than rely, basically, on people finding out however they might that they could die if they didn't get out. Everyone hears sirens, and no one can mistake sirens that scream on and on and on for anything but a life-threatening, community-wide emergency.

HISTORIC ARTIFACTS were removed for safekeeping from the Mission San Francisco Solano in downtown Sonoma, as evacuations were ordered late Wednesday only a mile from the Mission. The mission, built in 1823, houses religious icons, relics, statues, a candelabra and a famed series of watercolor paintings of the mission by Norwegian artist Chris Jorgensen, known as the Jorgensen Watercolors.

THE CAUSES of all the fires remain under investigation. Janet Upton, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said investigators were examining whether power lines falling down or electrical transformers exploding Sunday night may have sparked some of them. It's still too early to know how much money, and the number of resources, have so far been applied to the catastrophe. The exact number of firefighters assigned to NorCal is also not known, but hundreds of firefighters from as far away as San Diego are on the lines, as are all the local state prison fire crews whose front line labor has been crucial in saving many homes.

AS FIRES burned across the North Bay late Sunday night, the first night of the fires, Sonoma County considered sending a mass alert to cell phones in the region to warn of the rapidly spreading flames. But county officials decided against it, worried that widespread panic would obstruct firefighters.

WHAT has been clear from the outset of the disaster is how precarious the grid is. And how confused authorities are in coping without a working communications system. PG&E goes down and a chaos of rumor and misinformation ensues. For years, municipal entities have worked on disaster plans, but seemed to have prepared for disasters other than massive fires.

DRIVING SOUTH Thursday afternoon, fire smoke began north of Geyserville and continued all the way to Novato, a distance of about fifty miles. On the fire maps it looks like big clumps of flame here and there east of 101, but eyeballing to the east it looks more like big fires, medium fires, little fires in a jagged line moving west. Healdsburg, usually packed with visitors on an otherwise perfect Fall day, was virtually deserted. About three Friday afternoon, the news arrived that "north Geyserville" was under a mandatory evacuation order. Thursday afternoon, the smoke was still over the ridge. And the tv chuckle buddies are positively vibrating at the prospect of big winds Friday night that would drive the fifty miles of flame in new directions and new tragedies.

PROBABLY not the right time for petty cavils, but I wonder if I'm the only person who finds signers irritating. I've wondered for years how crucial they are to breaking news events. A deaf guy told me years ago that all the deaf people he knows have their own info networks. Watching a tv signer this morning, who was about twice the size of the speakers, I found her such a distraction that I lost track of what the speakers were saying (sic). And I had to laugh when the first signer at the Vegas massacre was signing stuff like, "The pizza jumped over the moon." The hearing impaired called in right away to complain that the Vegas signer didn't know what he was signaling. For purely local events, maybe the in-charge person could ask for a show of hands. "How many of you people need sign language?" If none....

AMONG THE DELUGE of sad stories inspired by the fire disaster, one that stuck in my craw was the one about the Sonoma County lady who spent a whole day making sandwiches for the hundreds of people forced into a shelter, only to be turned away because her sandwiches weren't "certified," meaning they weren't shrink-wrapped, pre-approved by disaster bureaucrats.

THE AIR QUALITY in much of the Bay Area last week was at times been comparable to — or even worse than —Beijing, one of the most notoriously polluted cities in the world, as smoke from the Wine Country wildfires drifts south and settles over the region.

READER COMMENT: “The pity parties have started in Willits. The bitching seems to be about PG&E not getting gas on fast enough. The guys are working 18 hour days, are from out of the area, have to drive an hour to get a room for sleep and are taking crap from some whiny ass who wants his or her morning shower…pathetic! We have folks who have lost everything, some have lost their lives and people are bitching about hot water…outrageous! When you see a PG&E guy, or any responder give them a thumbs up or say thank you. Without those folks we would be in a world of hurt…”

CA’S TAX LAWS provide a mechanism for the Assessor to adjust assessed values to recognize destruction caused by a calamity or misfortune which damages real or personal property. To qualify for a calamity adjustment, the property must have suffered more than $10,000 worth of damage and the owner must file a claim with the Assessor within twelve (12) months of the date of calamity.

HOPLAND, MENDOCINO (OF COURSE) AND GUALALA have undergrounded their power lines. Boonville languishes on some kind of eternal list. All power lines should be buried. Although lots of people are pointing at PG&E's downed power lines and exploding transformers as the cause of the catastrophe, no one has demanded that power lines be buried everywhere.

TWENTY CalFire inspectors are roaming fire areas from Sonoma County north through Mendo. PG&E says it may not have the money to pay off claimants if it's confirmed they're the responsible party, which you can translate as, "Rate increases on the way."

FOOD SHORTAGES were reported Saturday by the Santa Rosa shelters. 2800 homes in Santa Rosa have been destroyed.

THE "REPOPULATION" of Redwood Valley included people who produced proof that their marijuana grows were licensed; mere applicants were denied repopulation status.

CALFIRE says the "wild land/urban interface" has complicated the firefighting effort. Translation: Thousands of people are living in wooded areas where people haven't lived before.

TIM BOGARDUS described his trip up 101 to Boonville on Friday as "like driving through nuclear winter."

SURGICAL AND CONSTRUCTION masks were sold out Thursday everywhere in Marin County where smoke was so heavy Mount Tamalpais was not visible.

9 Responses to The Week That Was

  1. George Hollister Reply

    October 18, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    This fire, and the ones in Sonoma and Napa counties will change the way we think about fire. These fires began at night. They began when temperatures were moderate. At my house in Comptche, 30 miles to the West, there was frost. The weather event that triggered the fires had off shore winds upwards of 50 miles per hour +. So the humidity was low, but most of this is unusual. CalFire did have red flag warnings.

    We have gotten high winds of this nature, in the Fall, in the past, but the landscape was wet. The power gets knocked out for a week, people complain to PG&E, but life goes on. It is simple, high winds are a result of a steep pressure gradient between high pressure and low pressure. Why did the winds occur in the inland valleys, and not at the coast where they usually do?

    Defensible space? The winds that occurred made defensible space almost irrelevant. The fire crossed Hwy 101 in Santa Rosa, and burned buildings surrounded by concrete parking lots. No one would have predicted this. No one did.

    The one thing that we can do, is address the increased fuel load that exists in our native landscape. Historically, going back 10,000 years, this high fuel load is in itself unusual. If we don’t deal with this problem, we should expect a repeat of the catastrophic fires that we just experienced.

    • Harvey Reading Reply

      October 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

      ” They began when temperatures were moderate.”

      Preceded by a very hot, dry summer that produced tinderbox conditions, supplemented by high winds.

      “The one thing that we can do, is address the increased fuel load that exists in our native landscape.”

      Nonsense, you’re just wearing your timber industry apologist, “salvage logging” hat now.

      Much more could be accomplished through mandatory birth control and free abortions, with the goal of reducing population by at least one-half its current level.

      Another reasonable option is fireproofing existing structures and mandating fireproof structures in the future.

      • susana de castro Reply

        October 19, 2017 at 11:18 am

        It was general consensus of CalFire, Responders, Companies that experienced loss, private parties who suffered devastation, and those living and working in the counties involved: the one thing everyone could do, in the future, would be to lessen the fuel load existing inside and outside the/a perimeter.

  2. George Hollister Reply

    October 21, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I was told, not by PG&E, that there was a gust of wind recorded in PV that was 85MPH. Two barns lost roofs, one was completely blown over. Large trees were uprooted, and others severely damaged. I was also told that these severe wind events have happened before, But, in the past, since the landscape was wet, no fires resulted from downed power lines.

    Imagine a dry landscape wind event of this nature happening on the coast. The fuel loads are much worse, and the human population living in high fuel load areas is higher. If it is possible to happen in PV, why not on the coast? The coast does occasionally get dry hurricane force winds from the Southeast. Remember, temperatures in PV were no particularly high. The relative humidity was low. It is something to think about.

  3. susana de castro Reply

    October 21, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    One of the first things to impress me profoundly, when I came to the U.S., as a child, was the abundance of wood, everywhere: its beauty, smell, softness – it’s placing me in middle america.

    I had never lived in a wooden dwelling, before. I was used to brick, primarily.

    Is brick more expensive? Does it take longer to build brick structures? Wouldn’t clay bricks be better to build a home? It wouldn’t burn.

    • George Hollister Reply

      October 21, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      I am in the wood business, so there is a conflict of financial interest here. But the outside of the building is what is of concern. Roofs particularly,and anything else that can catch hot embers that will burn. Wood decks; there are fire retardant treatments for decks. Firewood piles; there are fire retardant tarps for wood piles. Cost of wood vs. block? I do not know. And I think the answer is not simple.

      Defensible space is pretty important too, despite what we saw in the recent fires. If a house is going to be saved, there has to be a real defensible space. Most people don’t have this.

    • Harvey Reading Reply

      October 21, 2017 at 5:35 pm

      Brick isn’t the best during earthquakes.

      • susana de castro Reply

        October 21, 2017 at 5:52 pm

        Makes sense for California, but…regardless, wood is favored over any other material for building homes in the entire USA – it’s a habit (no pun intended).

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