California is terrifyingly unprepared for the coming conflagrations

Analysis of grand jury investigations from around the state reveals aging equipment, personnel shortages, outdated procedures, and massive gaps in evacuation planning and emergency notification networks

When it comes to natural disasters California is playing Russian roulette with 40 million lives. An analysis of more than 200 civil grand jury investigations from all of the state’s 58 counties reveals badly flawed, and in many places nonexistent, emergency response plans affecting hundreds of cities. The grand jury reports also describe the extent to which many officials are engaging in what can only be described as willful ignorance.

In terms of wildfire preparedness in particular much of the state is moving backward, at top speed. Following a century in which fire suppression relied almost entirely on prevention communities statewide bear fuel loads that are historically unprecedented, at the precise moment in history when historic droughts and climate change add unprecedented variables. Coupled with constrained evacuation routes and overdevelopment in fire zones and wildland urban interface (WUI) areas the threats to life and property increase all the time.

Despite these realities legislation working its way through Sacramento would radically accelerate and expand residential development without any exceptions for fire zones, much less the even larger swaths of the state that are not technically designated “high fired danger areas” (HFDAs) but for all practical purposes are equally at risk. The legislation fails to fund essential infrastructure upgrades, including fire protection, leaving it to already overstretched local budgets. If passed these bills would literally add fuel to the fire.

The state’s spiraling homeless crisis is a literal accelerant: The number of fires and conflagrations attributable to illegal encampments increases by the thousands annually. Nor are those fires limited to urban areas. Last month a homeless man intentionally set a series of brush fires in the upscale Pacific Palisades neighborhood in Los Angeles. Fortunately fire crews prevented the blaze from endangering homes, but it burned more than 1,500 acres directly adjacent the Palisades Highlands community some 5,000 residents call home. It was far from an isolated incident, as L.A. endures dozens of homeless fires every day, many in high fire danger areas.

A private investigation with a retired CalFire inspector revealed a large illegal encampment with a firepit, cookstoves, and dozens of butane bottles less than 100 yards from the official start point of the 2019 Saddleridge Fire in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. The fire was attributed to an arcing SoCal Edison tower. It burned 9,000 acres and resulted in a death. Photograph and captions by Christopher D. LeGras.

The Palisades fire was a harbinger of things to come as we enter what will likely be another record setting fire season. Among the biggest concerns are evacuations. During the catastrophic 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County thousands of people became trapped in their cars as the flames raced toward them. Many fled on foot, literally running through an inferno that at its peak burned the equivalent of a football field every second. The fire obliterated the cities of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge, destroyed more than 14,000 structures, and killed at least 88 people (few survivors in the area accept the official death toll; everyone I spoke with in the days and weeks immediately after the fire believed it to be significantly higher, particularly considering how many people were living off the grid in the area).

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide

In 2019 a firm called Streetlight Data compiled a national list of evacuation-constrained small cities. Their analysis reveals scores of smaller communities (fewer than 40,000 people) around California with evacuation constraints similar to and in many cases worse than Paradise. They made the results of the study public.

The 2018 wildfire season was particularly educational, to say the least. Both the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire in northern Los Angeles County ignited on the same day, within hours of each other. The Woolsey Fire after action report noted, “While the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and the Ventura County Fire Department regularly plan for and practice their response to a large fire in the region, they could not have planned for a complete exhaustion of California’s limited firefighting resources brought on by a regional wildfire weather threat in conjunction with the Camp Fire, a mass casualty shooting in Ventura County, and the Ventura County Hill Fire, which began just before the Woolsey Fire started.”

Phrased differently, prior to November 2018 officials could not have planned for the perfect firestorms that engulfed the state, but they have no excuse for their failure to plan since that awful year. The fact that so many areas in the state remain woefully under prepared in 2021 is unconscionable. Even as California continues to lead the nation and the world in the quality of our firefighting professionals, civil grand jury investigations over the last three years expose deficiencies at the policy level that place those heroes, and the millions of Californians they protect, at risk every minute of every day.

Among the common themes are: Lack of emergency planning, underfunding of emergency resources, poor or nonexistent communications to the public, and lack of political leadership. While those themes recur throughout the reports one of the especially disconcerting aspects is the sheer variety of problems. In some counties the issue is mismanagement or outright malfeasance on the part of officials, elsewhere it’s a matter of bureaucratic ossification, in still other places it’s outdated equipment or inconsistent training protocols.

For example, a 2018-2019 Santa Cruz County grand jury investigation found that that county’s emergency response framework was a hopelessly confusing web of bureaucracy, unclear chains of command, policy inconsistencies, and no accountability. Likewise, in San Francisco, where the next “Big One” is not a matter of if but when, “roughly one-third of the City’s developed area…[is] not adequately protected from fires after a major earthquake.” Worse, the city “still does not have concrete plans or a timeline to provide a more robust emergency firefighting water supply for all parts of the City that need one.” This, despite the fact that “City leaders have known about this issue for decades.”

Again, the reports consistently laud the quality and bravery of emergency responders – which in a sense makes the situations even worse, because it reminds the rest of us that the people most at risk are the very ones we ask to risk their lives to save ours. Here is a chart of the counties in which civil grand jury investigations have identified significant weaknesses in their emergency preparedness over the last three years (you can find links to all the reports at the bottom of this post):

The total population of those counties is more than 10 million people. Of all the grand jury reports reviewed, only one, a 2019-2020 report from Calaveras County, identified positive progress in emergency preparedness.

Not just voices in the wilderness

Of course, civil grand jury investigations aren’t dispositive, and there are variations in the quality and depth of the reports from the California’s 58 counties. Jurors are not experts but citizens selected randomly from a pool of applicants and nominees. Nevertheless, as a general rule the reports reflect diligent effort, and the citizens who serve as jurors clearly took their responsibilities seriously. Moreover the reports themselves are not the end of the matter but the beginning. Any citizen can request an investigation into most any subject of public policy, such that the existence of the investigation itself serves to raise awareness. Formal responses from cities and government agencies provide additional insight and perspective above and beyond the reports themselves, and often spur ameliorative action. Officials also point out that fire preparedness involves a high degree of individual responsibility. The most effective fire prevention resources in the world cannot force an individual to clear the deadwood from their property, for example.

Still, government is the only entity that can muster the resources (and tax dollars) to address the crisis head on. Unfortunately other sources bolster the grand jury investigations’ conclusions that policy level failures are critical. After all, a homeowner can take every precaution to protect themselves but if the city in which they live hasn’t maintained its high pressure water systems those steps are all for naught.

In addition to the important Streetlight Data analysis, in 2019 the California State Auditor’s office investigatted emergency preparedness in three counties: Butte, Sonoma, and Ventura. The analysis concluded, “these three counties have not adequately implemented best practices for protecting vulnerable populations, which may place their residents at greater risk of harm during future natural disasters…. Before some of California’s most recent and significant wildfires, none of the three counties we reviewed had complete, up-to-date plans for alerting and warning their residents about danger from natural disasters, conducting evacuations, or sheltering evacuees.” Likewise, an in-depth 2019 investigation by USA Today concluded that less than a quarter – 22% – of California’s 27 most highly populated fire prone communities have robust evacuation plans. The story was updated in December of that year.

A need for leadership

Californians can only hope that the grand jury investigations prompt badly needed and long overdue changes. In fact it should be a political no-brainer: Policymakers who prioritize and highlight wildfire prevention, adaptation, and response will become relevant statewide overnight. The Dixie Fire raging in the northern reaches of the state is the latest grim reminder of the stakes. Leadership should start with immediate boosts in funding for things like controlled burns, vegetation control, and especially assistance and enforcement of residential clearance. Over the longer term the legislature could convene a task force to review preparedness and evacuation plans statewide, starting with the grand jury investigations.

In any event, unless and until policymakers – starting with Governor Gavin Newsom – take the crisis seriously as we approach high noon of another record setting fire season, it’s going to get worse. With apologies to South Park, buckle up, buckaroos.

Links to grand jury investigations:

Alameda County, 2018-19 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsContra Costa County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportEl Dorado County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportHumboldt County, 2017-2018 grand jury reportMarin County, 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsMendocino County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportNevada County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportOrange County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportSan Francisco County, 2018-2019 grand jury reportSan Luis Obispo County, 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsSan Mateo County, 2017-2018 & 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 grand jury reportsSanta Cruz County, 2019-2020 & 2020-2021 (two) grand jury reportsShasta County, 2019-2020 grand jury reportSonoma County, 2020-2021 grand jury reportSonoma County, 2020-2021 grand jury reportTuolumne County, 2019-2020 grand jury report

[THIS POST WAS UPDATED 8.12.21]

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