This morning at NFPA’s 120th Conference and Expo, participants heard from staff of CAL FIRE, the forestry and fire agency of the state of California, about their wildfire damage inspection program. David Shew, a staff chief who oversees CAL FIRE’s Planning and Risk Analysis Division, explained the history and rationale of such a process. At its simplest, it is a way to tell FEMA and other agencies how many structures were damaged or destroyed. But there are many other stakeholders who want and need to know the extent and magnitude of damage following wildfire, including non-governmental relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, state and local fire agencies, and of course, residents and business owners in the affected community.
CAL FIRE had the opportunity to put this program to the test following two major wildfires that occurred in September 2015. These were the Valley Fire in Lake County, which grew to 50,000 acres in just 24 hours, killed four people and destroyed 1,900 structures, and the Butte fire that destroyed 545 residences and 356 outbuildings and took two lives. While the fires in these areas were not completely surprising - CAL FIRE calls Lake County's terrain and conditions some of the worst for fire risk in the state - the conditions on these fires were described as extreme, with highly experienced veteran fire fighters claiming these were conditions they had never witnessed before.
Battalion Chief Johnathan Cox, who is assigned to fire prevention and fire hazard planning throughout Northern California, explained the working of the damage inspection program and what was found in the Butte and Valley Fires process. During the incident, one of the program objectives is a daily update of structure damage and destruction. CAL FIRE relies heavily on its sophisticated GIS mapping system, but also ties in early in the incident with the community's local planning and building departments to understand where parcels and properties are located. CAL FIRE also uses a simple "windshield survey" and drive-through inspections to get a rough, on-the-ground look at the early stages of damage. Inspectors also use a phone application using ESRI software to collect the data per parcel. It's rapid, consistent, connects photos to data and saves to the cloud. CAL FIRE values the app's ability to get real-time information and a log that can be tracked. According to Andrew Henning of CAL FIRE, this platform can also be used to collect data from other incidents such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or flooding.
Chief Shew reinforced that the state's strong pre-fire inspection and enforcement program will be linked to the post-fire damage inspection data to help inform the process and understand the ways structures are being destroyed.
Key findings following these two disastrous wildfires included some insight into potential for future land use planning, better construction and more deliberate design and siting that could minimize structure-to-structure ignition.