Inferno: The New Normal

Disaster preparedness has never been more critical.


A wildfire, on target to become the largest in California’s history, is actively consuming the valley that I call home. The Thomas Fire has left hundreds of thousands of once brushy, chaparral-covered acres between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties bare, outlined in shades of charcoal gray.

The blaze continues to spread with 236,000 acres burned as of Wednesday, December 13th. At last count, 904 structures have been lost. Another 18,000 are considered threatened.

Our area is not alone in experiencing these destructive events. The increasing severity and frequency of wildfires is of concern to folks everywhere—and, in particular, to thousands of water utility personnel across the country. This week I experienced firsthand the importance of critical water technologies used to support fire suppression. I learned valuable lessons about backup power sources and high capacity tank selection in anticipation of major natural disasters and fire events.  

My family raises avocados on a ranch south of Santa Barbara. We irrigate our orchards from an onsite well and an agricultural water allocation from a nearby lake. Last week our well pump failed, so we’ve been dependent on the reservoir source until a replacement pump arrives.

Our area’s water distribution system is a reliable and efficient one. Similar to the conveyance process that takes place at thousands of utilities across America, water from a lake is pumped uphill and collected in storage tanks. Those tanks gravity feed water to homes, farms, and businesses in the valley below.

As the wildfire approached this week, it consumed powerlines and transformers, leaving a wide area without any electricity.  The pump system to the tank was left without power. Furthermore, with the surrounding area engulfed in flames, it was unsafe for utility personnel to bring in portable generators.

Any farmer will tell you that watering crops is a good idea in the event of a fire—it’s beneficial not only to keep plants hydrated, but it can often help prevent the fire from spreading. However, because the tanks could not be refilled and the water in them was needed to save homes, farmers in our valley were asked not to irrigate their groves.

Large areas of our orchards burned. The snap of flames and the scent of smoldering foliage will not soon fade from my memory. Some of the trees will regrow. Others we will remove and replant. Nonetheless, the event serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of auxiliary power—the melted irrigation lines are a haunting symbol.

What measures has your organization taken to ensure that customers have access to water during natural disasters?  WE_bug_web

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    I’m sorry to hear of your personal loss from the most recent fire. In some cases there are no practical redundancies to cover every possible scenario, and in the case of centralized supply are even more difficult to account for every possible weak link in a complex system. Would you have been able to irrigate adequately if your pump hadn’t failed? Would you have been able to power a pump from back-up power as grid power is frequently not available in widespread emergencies? All these are questions we need to answer going forward, so we are better equipped to deal with natural disasters in the future. This is something that insurance companies might want to consider offering rebates for as well, since extreme events are increasingly more likely.

    • I agree that it’s difficult to account for all of the potential vulnerabilities in a system but I think that the discussion is an important one. Awareness is the key.

  • Antonio De la Cruz.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Apart from forest management including prescribed fires and in addition to back up power and large water tanks, green infrastructure (GI) could be effective to mitigate forest fires. Detention and retention GI (green barriers, permeable dams, ponds, wetlands, rain gardens, etc.) could help to store water (surface and subsurface) to reduce temperatures and extract water (from wells) that could be used as needed to mitigate forest fires. Therefore, GI is multipurpose, with good planning, the same investment reduces flooding, recharges ground water and fights forest fires. I wish well to your family and neighbours.

  • Antonio De la Cruz.

    I am sorry but the comment above of Mr. McClelland is not clear to me. If you have a back up power such as an electricity generator for emergencies why do you need power grid to operate it? The idea of having a back up power is to be independent of grip power during emergencies, if needed.

  • Dr Edo McGowan.

    Laura, sorry to hear of your situation. On a broader community scale it would be useful for the formation of a citizens fact-finding committee, while this is all fresh, to critically review existing contingency plans for public safety. Many times I have asked various agencies for their contingency plan for this event or that. I am usually assured that there are contingency plans but many times, when the hand reaches for “the plan” the hand comes back empty or badly wanting. Political and bureaucratic systems do not easily admit short comings and the people need to understand that. A slight of hand to cover for a lack of operational contingency plan may be the new norm. As my first job out of graduate school, I was trained by Mr. A. Alan Post and his agency, the state’s Legislative Analyst to look critically at how bureaucratic systems work (or don’t work).

    In post disaster reviews, the NTSB has a well developed protocol which can be adapted. We are at risk in this area from a number of potential flaws. This fire is a good learning tool. The road out of the area is a known issue as amply demonstrated by the flipped oil tanker next to Turnpike shutting down 101 north during a major fire evacuation, then 101 south had problems and then 150 was closed, then 154 was closed———–where to go and how? Do you think this will see a review? The grid is and has been at serious risk for a long time and everyone kinda hopes that it will continue to kinda be OK. But in reality, the grid if failing during a big rain and runoff across now denuded expanding clay soil base soil, could leave the area without power for weeks. We were all upset with the paucity of water supplies during the drought but then a good rain came and most went to other issues. We have a new state law to affect groundwater but, what the heck, we have water———-or do we?


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