Tag Archives: CalFire

Governor Jerry Brown ties ruinous fires to climate change

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate)

Governor ties ruinous fires to climate change

By C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite , August 6, 2015 12:54 PM
Gov. Jerry Brown is flanked by firefighters in Lake County as he addresses reporters, warning that “California is burning.” Leah Millis / The Chronicle

CLEARLAKE, Lake County — The imminent danger from the devastating Rocky Fire in Lake County diminished Thursday and hundreds of residents began to return to their evacuated homes, but Gov. Jerry Brown made clear in a visit to the area that California is still in danger.

Brown traveled to the scorched hillside at Cowboy Camp, just off fire-ravaged Highway 20, and, as helicopters circled nearby, said the fire illustrates that climate change is both real and destructive.

“California is burning,” he said. “What the hell are you going to do about it?

“This is a wake-up call. We have to start coming to our senses. This is not a game of politics. We need to limit our carbon pollution. These are real lives and real people. This problem cannot be solved year by year.”

Nearly 3,600 firefighters have been fighting the fire, which was 45 percent contained Thursday and had burned 69,600 acres. Full containment is expected by late next week, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection began letting roughly 800 of the more than 1,400 people who had been evacuated back into their homes.

Evacuation orders were lifted in the Wilbur Springs area on the northeastern side of the fire, off Highway 20. Only residents with identification will be allowed access to Wilbur Springs Road, near the border between Lake and Colusa counties, Cal Fire officials said. Residents on the south side of the fire, east of Highway 29 to West Jerusalem Valley Road, were also allowed to return home, officials said.

Still more evacuees, forced from their homes in the Spring Valley area, would probably be allowed back Friday morning, officials said.

Closures continue

Highways 16 and 20 remained closed Thursday except for a small portion of Highway 20 at Wilbur Springs, which is accessible only coming from the east off Interstate 5, officials said.

“Weather conditions across California are significantly improved compared to last week,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, who warned that the relief could be just a temporary phenomenon. He said weather forecasters are “expecting changing weather conditions over the next couple of days, with thunder systems moving in across Northern California.”

Red-flag warnings have been issued for dry lightning and gusting winds over the next couple of days, he said.

Brown received a briefing from officials overseeing the blaze, which has been burning for more than a week in Lake County and has spread to Yolo and Colusa counties. Forty-three homes have been destroyed and thousands of others threatened, and hundreds of local residents remained evacuated from their homes Thursday, according to Cal Fire.

While veteran firefighters said their efforts were business as usual, many stressed that this year’s blazes are out of the norm. The persistent drought, extremely hot weather and blustery winds all have the feel of something new and more dangerous.

Governor’s warning

“We are now in an extreme weather event,” Brown cautioned. “This is not the way these fires usually behave. If it continues year after year, California can literally burn up.”

Brown said he had talked to a resident who said he not only lost his home but also would find it difficult to rebuild because he had no insurance. Apparently, that’s not unusual. Insurance carriers sometimes decline to cover property in the steep, wooded canyons in the area.

The Rocky Fire is so pervasive that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District warned Thursday that smoke from the wildfires might impact areas in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. Air quality, however, is expected to be in the “good” or “low moderate” categories and is not expected to exceed air quality health standards.

Although climate change can be a hot-button political issue, Brown continues to use the California fires as an object lesson for climate change deniers. This isn’t theory, he said, gesturing to the moonscape scene behind him.

“This is credible enough to change some minds,” he said.

Mark Repetto, a firefighter from Sacramento’s Metro Fire Department, said the fire was a perfect storm of the worst conditions.

“Hot, dry and windy,” Repetto said. “Today is a little cooler, which means the humidity is higher. Monday the humidity was in the teens. That and hot weather pre-heat the fuel. It’s already hot before the fire gets there.”

Surge still possible

Although fire officials predict the Rocky Fire will be fully contained by next week, another hot, windy, low-humidity day could easily spark another fiery surge. Along Highway 20, hot spots still sent up plumes of smoke.

Brown said the worst is yet to come.

“We have people acting like (if the Rocky Fire is contained) it’s the end,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know that historically August and September are worse than July. So fasten your seat belt.”

Over the weekend, Cal Fire reported more than 100 dry-lightning-sparked fires in remote reaches of Northern California. In Humboldt County alone, 75 blazes have burned more than 4,000 acres since July 31, with just 35 percent containment reported Thursday.

The cause of the Rocky Fire has not been determined. Fire officials fear lightning could prompt additional lands to burn and complicate the suppression effort.

Conditions around California are ripe for a lightning fire after four dry years, said Daniel Swain, a Stanford University researcher studying climate.

“Things will ignite even if they get a little water from the storm,” Swain said. “This is a concern over the next 48 hours.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Hamed Aleaziz and Kurtis Alexander contributed to this report.  C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.
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    Benicia Congressman Mike Thompson has long record of concern over hazmat rail safety

    [Editor: In an exclusive interview, the Benicia Herald details the historical background on Thompson’s response to the catastrophic derailment and spill in Dunsmuir, CA in 1991.  Note that Thompson is reported to have met with Valero and other area refinery and train safety officials.  He has proposed legislation that would involve federal intelligence oversight to guard against security threats on hazmat tank cars.  – RS]

    Repost from The Benicia Herald

    Congressman on Crude-by-Rail plan: ‘Make sure it’s done safely’

    May 25, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman
    MIKE THOMPSON. watchsonomacounty.comMIKE THOMPSON – watchsonomacounty.com

    When it comes to looking at the dangers posed by transport of hazardous materials, “it’s not just Benicia,” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson said Friday in an exclusive interview with The Herald.

    And it’s not just since the opening of the Bakken oil fields made a light, sweet and more combustible crude oil available domestically, particularly by rail delivery.

    Nor has Thompson been following these developments only since the the deadly train explosion last year that killed 47 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, or the April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va., that poured 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River.

    His interest was sparked nearly a quarter century ago, and it’s why he said the proposed Valero Crude By Rail project “must be done right.”

    In 1991, the small California resort town of Dunsmuir experienced its own toxic spill when a Southern Pacific train derailed nearby, spilling 19,000 gallons of a soil fumigant that killed more than a million fish and millions of other animals, from crayfish and amphibians to insects and mollusks.

    Hundreds of thousands of trees were killed as well, and the chemical metam sodium left a 41-mile plume from the spill site to where the river enters Shasta Lake.

    The disaster still ranks as California’s largest hazardous chemical spill. Many species still haven’t recovered from the spill, though fish populations have returned to normal.

    At the time of the spill, Thompson was a state senator. Dunsmuir, in Siskiyou County, was in his district.

    As a result of the devastating spill, he drafted legislation, Senate Bill 48, that became Chapter 766 of California’s Statutes of 1991. The bill founded the Railroad Accident Prevention and Immediate Deployment (RAPID) Force, which cooperates with existing agencies to respond to large-scale releases of toxic materials after surface transportation accidents.

    The statute also ordered the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to develop a statewide plan in cooperation with the state fire marshal, businesses that would be impacted by the requirement and agencies in the RAPID Force. For a time, it also raised money through fees to supply responders with necessary equipment to tackle such emergencies.

    Under the statute, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, CalFire, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services made interagency agreements so resources could be managed efficiently in preparing for or acting during an emergency.

    That RAPID plan has multiple policies and directions to any agency or business in the event of a railroad accident, so the damage to public health and the environment is minimized.

    Hazardous materials (hazmat) teams were formed, and regional training centers were established to provide certificate-level education, specifically in hazmat railcar safety and other specialist training to emergency responders.

    “My legislation set the standard for railroad safety,” said Thompson, Benicia’s representative in the House. “It included grant money so safety officials would have the equipment for spill cleanup.”

    More than a year ago, Valero Benicia Refinery applied to extend Union Pacific rail lines on its property so crude could be brought in by rail. This isn’t additional oil; it would replace some of the oil that currently is brought in by tanker ships or other methods.

    A draft Environmental Impact Report on the project is due to be released June 10.

    But trains already bring hazardous materials through other areas of the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Thompson said he has met not only with officials from Valero, but other area refineries about rail delivery of oil.

    “They’re here,” he said about the refineries. “Their employees live in the community.”

    That doesn’t mean the safety factors aren’t being reviewed, he said. One is the design of the oil containers that are drawn by locomotives.

    Though BNSF Railway has announced it’s seeking contractors to provide tanker cars that exceed federal safety standards, that’s an unusual step for a railroad company to take because of how contracting with a railroad works.

    Normally railroads don’t own their own cars, according to rail officials for both BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad: Customers either lease or own them, then contract railroad lines to move their products.

    Thompson said he has had conversations about construction of those cars, with one person telling him that if rail cars are carrying products that can harm people or the environment, they should be strong enough to fall off a cliff and not break.

    It isn’t practical to armor a car or make its walls so thick it can carry little inside, he conceded. But he added, “They do need to be as safe as they possibly can, to protect public safety and the environment and wildlife.”

    The Association of American Railroads and its Tank Car Committee has issued a statement saying that it petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2011 to strengthen the standard, non-pressure tanker car, called a DOT-111.

    Those cars make up 228,000 of the 335,000 active fleet tank cars, and AAR’s statement said about 92,000 DOT-111s carry flammable liquids, including crude and ethanol.

    When no federal action was taken on its request, AAR itself adopted higher standards for reinforcing flammable liquid-carrying tank cars that are ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

    AAR then reiterated in 2013 its request for the federal government to enact stricter regulations, and has said the oil companies that contract with railroads have resisted spending money on the stronger rail cars.

    “There’s always pushback,” said Thompson, referring to any new or strengthening of regulations or raising of standards, and not just concerning tanker cars.

    As for Valero’s specific Benicia project as well as crude delivery by rail in general, Thompson said, “I want to make sure it’s done safely, so damage is minimal, if not nonexistent.

    “There is risk in everything,” he said, noting that there are risks as well when trucks, ships and pipelines transport oil.

    He cited as examples such ship spills as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the Shell Oil pipeline break that sent oil into the Gulf of Mexico in April. He described how he went to inspect the latter incident.

    He said he’s also met with area train safety officials, who told him about the safety detectors designed to spot irregularities on the rails.

    “We walked the track,” he said.

    But there still are questions whether such transport is safe enough, and Thompson said he’s submitted to rail safety officials questions posed by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson.

    As a member of the U.S. House, Thompson said he has also authored an amendment to a recent bill that also addresses rail safety.

    He cited an example of one of his “walk the track” visits, when he saw rail tanker cars that were parked on a siding.

    The cars were illustrated in graffiti.

    Thompson said he has discussed this with federal rail safety officials, not as a vandalism problem, but as evidence of a lapse in security.

    His legislation requires intelligence experts to be involved in looking at refineries, too, so that shipments by rail are secure against such violent activity.

    While some refinery staff members have told Thompson that safety is being handled internally, without the need for federal involvement, he countered their objection by telling them about the tagged tankers.

    “If there’s time to put graffiti on them, there’s time to put a bomb on them,” he said.

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