California is no stranger to wildfires. Every dry season seems to bring deadlier fires than the last, making a long and contentious fire season the new norm for Californians. News coverage typically focuses on the loss of wildland and residential properties, but the impacts on California’s businesses are often overlooked. As fire seasons grow in severity, California businesses must grapple with how to reduce their vulnerability to wildfires.
In this article, we will provide a brief overview of wildfires in California, including why fires are worsening in the state, previous fire management methods, and what California is doing now to try and mitigate wildfire events. Finally, we will provide strategies on how you can better protect your business ahead of the fire season.
Why are Wildfires Worsening in California?
Climate Change & Wildfires
California's unique climate means that the state frequently experiences winters with high rates of precipitation followed by long periods of aridity. This climate combination makes the state naturally fire-prone. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this seasonality by decreasing total precipitation during the wet season and increasing temperatures in the dry season - resulting in a fire season that is longer and more extreme. The 2018 wildfire season was the worst on record in California. In addition to the devastating Woolsey and Hill fires, 2018 also included the Camp fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Wildland - Urban Interaction
California's population of about 40 million has dramatically affected housing availability and the ability of existing infrastructure to accommodate the population. Increased pressures to provide housing for a growing population means that more people are moving into wildland areas, such as forests and shrubland. As such, burning processes that occur as part of natural ecosystem functions now have an increased probability of occurring in wildland areas where a higher density of property and occupants exists.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) estimates that about eight million people own property in wildland areas, with this figure expected to grow in the coming years. Businesses that operate in wildland-urban areas have new pressures to protect against wildfires, complicating operations for many businesses.
California's Previous Wildfire Management Strategies
For over 100 years, California has relied on manual fire suppression as its primary wildfire management strategy. Fires are a natural forest ecosystem function that promote healthy growth and destruction of old and dead growth on the forest floor. California’s reliance on firefighters to snuff out wildfires of varying intensity has led to a dangerous overgrowth of dead and dying vegetation and brush that has provided more fuel for fires. Overgrowth, combined with prolonged droughts and bark beetle infestations, has significantly impacted the health of California's forests.
In 2017, California had a record 129 million dead trees across eight million acres of wildland. Dead vegetation in these areas are more flammable than other sources of fuel, which increases the loss of property and life in the case of a wildfire. As more destructive fires lead to higher rates of carbon being released into the atmosphere, the loss of healthy forests also means losing effective natural carbon sinks.
Fuel reduction, the thinning out of forests to reduce the probability and/or intensity of a wildfire, is a national and statewide fire management strategy. Yet the sheer size of California's forests has led scientists and researchers to question the effectiveness and pragmatism of this strategy. In addition, forest fuel reduction does not address the areas that are most affected by wildfire. Roughly 1% of US Forest Service forest treatments experience wildfire each year, but the majority of wildfires actually occur in grasslands and shrublands, meaning most of California’s wild land that actively experiences wildfires does not benefit from this method of fire management.
What is California Doing Now About Wildfires?
Fire management agencies may "prescribe" controlled burns as a treatment for California's forests. Fire managers will light a fire in a carefully chosen area under controlled conditions, including a fire management plan and a prescribed burn plan. Controlled fire events afford many benefits for forests, including:
Tree reproduction for coniferous trees
Clearance of underbrush to allow for vegetation growth
Biomass supplies for herbivores due to new growth after a fire
Nutrients for soils from burned vegetation
The California Forest Carbon Plan (FCP) was adopted in 2016 as a subset of AB 32. Under the FCP, multiple strategies are outlined that are designed to promote healthy and resilient wildland and urban forests in the state.
SB 901 was passed in fall of 2018 by California's senate, which assigned $1 billion to fire prevention objectives over a five-year period. Provisions include fire prevention work for small landowners, and a focus on removing small and mid-size trees.
10 Tips: How To Protect Your Business From Wildfires
As a California business owner, you may not be able to prevent the occurrence of a wildfire, but there are strategies that you can adopt to mitigate your vulnerability to such events.
Know the Fire Hazard Severity Zones (FHSZ) for your area. These zones represent the wildfire hazard for your area, and are typically classified as "moderate", "high", or "extreme". Cal Fire is in the process of updating their maps, but the 2018 Fire Hazard Severity Zones Map is still available.
Maintain a defensible space. Follow Cal Fire’s defensible space zone guidelines. Noncombustible materials such as brick or concrete can help serve as a buffer between your business and the adjacent land.
Advocate for your business. As a business owner and member of your community, you can advocate via your local Chamber of Commerce to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for inspected, maintained, and upgraded power transmission and distribution infrastructure in your area. Having a clear understanding of the wildfire hazards and practices in your area can guide the wildfire defense plan your business implements.
Clean debris from rooftops and gutters. Regularly removing debris, such as leaves and dust, reduces the amount of flammable materials on your property.
Maintain backup power amid utility shutdowns. In the event that your utility company shuts down energy operations ahead of a severe weather event, having a reliable backup system reduces the impacts of power outages on your business. Backup generators and rooftop solar and battery storage provide some additional ease of mind as you prepare your business for an expected wildfire.
Practice smart material storage. Do not store flammable items near your buildings where embers can land on them. Dry, cool places are the best storage options for flammable materials. For flammable liquids, consider the use of flammable liquid storage containers that protect materials from external fire events.
Protect windows. Multi-pane, tempered glass windows are less vulnerable to flames, and all windows should be closed when there is a fire threat.
Cover vents with a noncombustible mesh screening. The thickness of the mesh determines the potential for embers to enter your building.
Practice smart vehicle maintenance. Vehicles should not be driven on dry grass, as the grass can be ignited by a spark or hot vehicle part. Regularly check brakes, as worn brake pads can also produce sparks that may ignite nearby vegetation.
Consider company relocation. When developing new facilities, or undergoing the process of rebuilding, it may be worthwhile to consider selecting a new site that is less vulnerable to wildfire damage. For example, a location with less vegetation within property boundaries reduces the presence of potential fire fuel on-site.
If you would like further assistance in protecting your business from wildfires, please contact us to speak with one of our qualified safety professionals.