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Jacqi Almond became a volunteer firefighter in 2018.

High-tech fire cameras to make Napa County debut
  • Updated

Three high-tech fire detection cameras are slated to debut in Napa County on Friday, adding an extra layer of potential prevention with wildfire season at its height.

One is located on Atlas Peak east of the city of Napa, one at Clover Flat Landfill southeast of Calistoga and one on Diamond Mountain southwest of Calistoga. They are designed to provide early alerts for wildfires and cover much of Napa Valley.

The artificial intelligence-based IQ FireWatch system can detect fires both visually and through heat disturbances. A third party is to monitor the information and alert Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit Emergency Command Center of potential wildfires.

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“Early detection is the best defense with these types of active fire calls,” Napa County Fire Chief Jason Martin said.

It remains to be seen whether the system will be a game-changer through the end of fire season. The system is getting a kind of test run as the county ponders future options.

“Now, knock on wood, we (hopefully) don’t have an incident and it’s inconclusive,” Martin said. “Or we do have an incident and we’re able to keep it small because of early intervention.”

The Board of Supervisors on Aug. 24 agreed to spend $6,000 per camera per month for the three high-tech fire cameras installed by Illumination Technologies California. The term is until the end of December, though the cameras can be turned off and not paid for if the rainy season arrives sooner, a county report said.

Martin didn’t portray the three high-tech cameras as a cure-all for megafires. Rather, he depicted them as another tool along with such things as stepped-up fuel management and the water-dropping helicopter that was based at Napa County airport in early June.

These cameras could be only a starting point for early fire detection efforts. The county Board of Supervisors is looking at installing a more comprehensive system that could cover about 90% of the county.

What technology might be available is still to be determined, county Public Works Director Steven Lederer told the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 14.

“It could end up being cameras,” Lederer said. “It could be a satellite system. It could be drones. It could be other things I am not even thinking about.”

The three cameras were installed and recording video during last year's fire season, but they were not yet hooked up to the monitoring system, so they couldn't alert firefighters to flames in real-time.

One of the cameras, the one at Clover Flat, captured the opening moments of the devastating Glass Fire, which broke out on Sept. 27, 2020. While the camera was not hooked to the monitoring system yet, the footage it captured was later used by investigators to rule out as a cause of the fire a malfunction in an electric fence around a vineyard, which had been an early suspect. Investigators have not been able to determine what did cause the blaze, which ripped across the valley, destroying homes and several wineries and resorts.

The three IQ FireWatch cameras are not to be confused with cameras that are part of the separate ALERTWildfire North Bay system.

ALERTWildfire over three years has installed cameras at a dozen locations in Napa County. The public can go to to see views from Mount Veeder to Mount St. Helena to Berryessa Peak and other vantage points.

But the AlertWildfire system cameras are simply cameras. They don’t have heat detection, artificial intelligence technology, and other high-tech features. Nor is the system monitored day and night.

Christopher Thompson, board president of Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, said the high-tech cameras should make a difference. And, he said, in a sense, the concept is not all that new.

“We’ve used lookout towers in this country since the early 1900s,” he said, adding the IQ FireWatch cameras are the technological version.

Thompson is a volunteer firefighter for the Deer Park fire station. He lives in Deer Park, a small community northeast of St. Helena that lost dozens of homes to the 2020 Glass Fire — Thompson said perhaps a couple of hundred. Five homes near Thompson’s house burned.

Napa County is better prepared for fires this year in ways that go beyond the IQ FireWatch system, Thompson said. He pointed to projects such as clearing vegetation along major evacuation routes.

“I feel safer because we are at the very least dealing with the egress and ingress, which is a huge issue — egress, getting people out of the area and ingress, getting first responders into it,” he said.

Napa Firewise since the 2017 Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires has worked with the county and various groups to raise $18 million for fire prevention. It spearheaded the development of a five-year plan unveiled last spring that outlines fuel reduction projects.

In coming years as more fuel reduction projects are completed, Napa County will be even better prepared to deal with wildfires, Thompson said.

So far this fire season, the county has had some close calls but no megafire.

County Supervisor Ryan Gregory pointed to the Fremont Fire that broke out the afternoon of Sept. 22 in the Carneros region. It sent a column of smoke into the air that at one point looked ominous from the city of Napa.

But the Fremont Fire turned out to be a wildfire footnote. Ground crews aided by two helicopters and five air attack planes contained the blaze at 116 acres.

He sleeps better at night knowing the water-dropping helicopter is stationed at the Napa County Airport, Gregory said.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service as of Tuesday had no rain in its seven-day forecast. That means no end to the fire season — either early or late — is in sight.

Napa State Hospital averages almost 1.5 inches of rain in October. None has fallen to date this month and only .08 inches since March. Last rain year, the hospital received 10.24 inches, which is 37% of normal, according to the National Weather Service.


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How much do wildfires really cost California’s economy?
  • Updated

Not a single structure burned down in the city of South Lake Tahoe. And yet, the threat of the fast approaching Caldor Fire cost surrounding El Dorado County tens of millions of dollars, if not more. 

In South Lake Tahoe, Domi ​​Chavarria, co-owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, felt the devastation of the Caldor Fire even before the city was evacuated in August. Smoke had blanketed the city, and the tourists had mostly left. When the evacuation orders came down, Verde was stocked with food, almost all of which went bad during the more than two weeks the restaurant ultimately remained closed. Produce wilted; proteins went bad; prepared sauces couldn’t be used. 

“All that stuff, none of that’s made to last weeks — it’s all made the last days,” says Chavarria. He estimates the lost inventory was worth between $10,000 and $13,000. None of it was covered by his insurance.

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Losses like Chavarria’s add up — to at least $50.3 million in lost economic activity for El Dorado County, according to an initial estimate shared with CalMatters. 

Knowing the true cost of wildfires could spur more ambitious action from both government and the private sector, experts say. For instance, tracking the costs systematically over several years could help policymakers figure out which fire prevention and mitigation strategies are most cost effective. 

But right now, California has an incomplete understanding of how much wildfires cost the state each year.

The costs of business disruption, the cost of damage to uninsured homes, the cost of ecosystem damage, and the cost of secondary health impacts — such as those caused by wildfire smoke — aren’t being tracked. 

Right now, we don’t have a comprehensive picture of the economic harm wildfires cause each year, according to Teresa Feo, senior science officer at the California Council on Science and Technology and lead author of a 2020 report from the council on the cost of wildfires in California. 

“There isn’t a statewide systematic tracking effort to figure out these costs,” says Feo. She said it took only about a month of digging into the question to realize: ”Oh no, you can’t come up with a number, this is actually impossible with the existing data.”

The state does not track or estimate the cost of wildfires in a way that accounts for public health costs or ecological damage on a regular basis, confirmed Heather Williams, communications director for California Natural Resources Agency. “Those would always be a moving target since health impacts can occur years later. But with more research being funded, this may be more feasible to help the state better understand the economic and ecological impacts so we can continue to make science-based informed policy decisions,” Williams wrote in an email. 

The different costs of wildfires

The initial analysis of the Caldor Fire’s economic impact was prepared by Tom Harris, an economist at the University of Nevada, Reno, for the Tahoe Prosperity Center, an economic development organization for the Lake Tahoe Basin. It estimates the combined losses of El Dorado and Nevada’s Douglas County at $93 million. And, says Harris, that preliminary estimate is low: It doesn’t include the losses in sectors like rental homes or recreation businesses. Nor does it include the lost economic activity caused by residents evacuating, and it doesn’t take into account the healthcare costs associated with wildfire smoke exposure.

Some costs are more immediate — the cost of Chavarria’s rotted food, for instance, and the fact that the fire took place over Labor Day weekend. 

“That’s not a slow weekend in Tahoe,” says Chavarria. Tourism is about 63 percent of the Tahoe basin’s economy, according to a 2018 report from Tahoe Prosperity Center

Between the slowdown in business due to smoke and the evacuation, Verde lost several weeks of revenue. Chavarria says that a month of sales for the restaurant is more than $100,000. Verde’s employees also went without paychecks for the two weeks the restaurant was shut down. 

Nicole Smith, co-founder and taproom manager of South Lake Brewing Company, said her business fared better than many, partially because none of the beer went bad. But between the loss of sales in the company’s own taproom and the beer it sells to other local businesses, the brewery lost somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 of revenue during the evacuation, estimates Smith.

In addition to lost business, some figures are easier to pin down, like the amount Cal Fire spends on fire suppression. 

But the state, for example, does not systematically track deaths and health conditions linked to wildfire smoke exposure. The costs associated with smoke may be the largest costs we’re missing, says Feo. One study produced by public health department researchers and academics tracked the use of Medi-Cal services during San Diego’s 2007 fall fire season. It found that during the peak fire period, emergency room visits for respiratory conditions increased by 34% and visits for asthma increased by 113%. Especially concerning was a 136% increase in ER visits for children four and younger for asthma. That finding, the authors wrote, “is cause for particular concern because of the potential for long-term harm to children’s lung development.”

A systematic effort to track wildfire smoke effects would be especially profound, says Feo, because it reaches so far beyond the location of the fire. In 2018, for example, smoke from the Camp Fire clogged San Francisco, a city more than a 100 miles away. If you can put figures on the impact of smoke across the whole state, “who’s impacted by the fire suddenly changes very dramatically, and therefore who benefits from the prevention and mitigation changes,” she said.

Different approaches to wildfire data

The current approach to assessing the aftermath of wildfires is a hodgepodge of research looking into different aspects that is not led by any one agency. 

A smattering of data collection efforts includes: 

  • The California Air Resources Board is funding a study of the health impact of wildfire smoke statewide for 2017, 2018 and 2020, which will be ready in three or four years; 
  • The board is also funding a study of lost work days due to wildfire smoke, which will be ready in a couple of years; 
  • Cal Fire is also increasing funding for research into forest health;
  • The Department of Insurance tabulates the damage to insured homes for some major wildfires, but does not track damage from all wildfires each year;  
  • And a variety of academic studies.

Academic research on the cost of wildfires tends to come out several years later, and different studies focus on different fires using different methodologies. That makes it difficult to compare the findings, or track the costs over time. 

These studies are also conducted based on the interests of the particular researcher, says Louise Comfort, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a faculty affiliate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society Policy Lab. “That doesn’t give us a comprehensive view,” Comfort says. She credits an UC-system wide effort to study the impacts of wildfires as a step in the right direction, but says the results are still not coming in in a standardized way. 

The state may be in the best position to lead the effort on tracking the economic impact of wildfires. “The only thing that would give us a comprehensive view is if the state really said, ‘We want this kind of information,” says Comfort. But the state agencies shouldn’t go it alone, she says, they should engage experts in the university system.

Without statewide, systematically published numbers, it’s more difficult to compare how different regions are suffering from wildfires, or to assess the cost effectiveness of different wildfire prevention strategies. And it may be more challenging to justify spending on expensive, but nonetheless cost-effective, mitigation or prevention programs. 

That’s a question that comes up when talking about spending taxpayer dollars, Feo said.  

While wildfire costs aren’t tracked, there are some academic studies that attempt to estimate those costs and produce mind boggling figures. In 2020, for example, a team of researchers studied the nationwide impact of California’s 2018 wildfire season, and estimated that its economic damage totaled $148.5 billion. 

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, captured direct capital costs, such as buildings burning down; health costs, including those related to air pollution exposure; and indirect losses such as the economic disruption of lost hours working, as well as disruption to regional and national supply chains. 

The costs identified in that study exceed that of any disaster in the U.S. between the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, other than Hurricane Katrina, says Adam Rose, a research professor at University of Southern California and an expert in energy and environmental economics. 

Rose said that a standardized methodology for assessing the total cost of wildfires should be established and applied on a regular basis — and it needs to be one that can be implemented relatively rapidly, as opposed to several years after a fire. That would allow a whole field of researchers to help track these costs, and would make their findings comparable. In addition to helping make the political case for government-led fire-prevention efforts, those numbers might spur private sector action on fire prevention efforts. 

But not all experts said that measuring the costs associated with each wildfire season is important. William Siembieda, a professor emeritus at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and senior member of a Cal Poly team that prepared several of the state’s annual hazard mitigation plans, says he doesn’t know how policymakers would make use of those numbers. 

What would be useful, Siembieda says, is for cities to model the economic impact of different levels of fire damage. What would be the cost if 5% of the city burned? What if 10% or 20% burned? 

With those estimates, local officials could decide whether they’re prepared to eat that loss, insure against the risk, or pursue other strategies.

What’s next for victims?

For a couple weeks now, South Lake Tahoe residents and business owners have been reopening their restaurants, shops, and adventure outfits, taking stock of what happened. When Lisa Schafer, co-owner of Wildwood Makers Market, returned to the city and drove to her shop for the first time, she felt waves of different emotions. There was the fear she’d been holding on to — that her hometown, her house, and her business would all burn to a crisp. There was the gratitude she felt for the fact that they had all been spared. 

“I cried the whole drive,” she said.

Her shop, which sells jewelry, wall decor, embroidery kits and other gifts, smelled smoky for her first few days back. It wasn’t a pleasant campfire smell; “it smelled like beef jerky.”

Business didn’t return to normal immediately; tourists didn’t rush back to the area. All told, Shafer lost about 60% of sales in September. Her insurance won’t cover that loss of business. 

It’s clear, she says, that these fires are not going away. She said she wishes there were some sort of automatic aid for businesses and individuals impacted by the fire. 

Ultimately, Wildwood Makers Market will bounce back from loss of business, Schafer said. But if something happens in the winter that disrupts the holiday shopping season, that could be “catastrophic,” she says. “One more hit would not be good for us.”

Public Safety
Update: Person of interest in American Canyon blaze hospitalized; Newell Fire 100% containment
  • Updated

Updated at 3:27 p.m. The man who was arrested near the site of a 132-acre fire Monday evening in American Canyon remained hospitalized Tuesday with burn injuries and is a person of interest in connection with the blaze that briefly caused an evacuation warning in a city neighborhood, according to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office.

Spreading quickly over arid grasslands, the Newell Fire broke out shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday in the Newell Open Space Preserve on American Canyon’s east side. The blaze prompted an evacuation warning for residents of the Via Bellagio neighborhood and caused the closure of American Canyon Road into the city.

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Firefighters worked to corral the Newell Fire on Tuesday and achieved 100% containment by 6:15 p.m. Tuesday evening, according to Cal Fire's Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit, which revised the fire's size downward from the 150 acres it announced Monday night. 

A 26-year-old man was detained by sheriff’s deputies who encountered him near a car that was in flames and off the road, according to the sheriff’s office. Witnesses saw the man trying to run from the burning car and pointed him out to law enforcement officers, sheriff’s spokesperson Henry Wofford said.

The 2000 Honda Accord sedan had been reported stolen in Vallejo earlier Monday, Wofford added.

The man, whose name was not immediately released, was arrested in connection with the reported theft. He remained hospitalized for non-life-threatening burns as of 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, and the sheriff’s office was awaiting medical clearance to interview him in connection with the fire, according to Wofford.

Due to the expected length of the man’s hospital stay, Napa County has released him from custody but will continue to treat him as a person of interest in the Newell Fire and the car theft, Wofford said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not a matter of if we talk to him, it’s a matter of when,” he said, explaining that the sheriff’s office will work with Cal Fire to determine whether the car theft and the fire were related.

Wofford said arson has not been ruled out as a source of the American Canyon fire, but spokesperson Tyree Zander of Cal Fire, the investigating agency in the blaze, did not say whether the state firefighting agency is investigating the incident as arson.

Less than an hour after the fire began, the Napa County Office of Emergency Services issued an evacuation warning for the Via Bellagio neighborhood in south American Canyon east of Highway 29. The notice, which was not an order to evacuate, was lifted shortly before 8:15 p.m.

During the fire’s early hours, the California Highway Patrol closed American Canyon Road from Interstate 80 to Highway 29 as numerous fire departments sent trucks and crews to the city. The road reopened at about 10:15 p.m.

The Newell Fire began during a red flag warning the National Weather Service had issued for parts of Napa and other Bay Area counties, mainly higher-elevation areas, due to a combination of strong winds, low humidity and vegetation left dry by the California drought. The weather warning began Sunday night and was to stay in force through 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Monday’s fire was the largest in two years to approach the city of American Canyon. On Oct. 6, 2019, the American Fire erupted on grasslands off American Canyon Road, spreading to 526 acres on slopes overlooking the town. The blaze forced road shutdowns and evacuation advisories in the northeast corner of the Vintage Ranch development.


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Job quits hit record pace
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — One reason America's employers are having trouble filling jobs was starkly illustrated in a report Tuesday: Americans are quitting in droves.

The Labor Department said that quits jumped to 4.3 million in August, the highest on records dating back to December 2000, and up from 4 million in July. That's equivalent to nearly 3% of the workforce. Hiring also slowed in August, the report showed, and the number of jobs available fell to 10.4 million, from a record high of 11.1 million the previous month.

The data helps fill in a puzzle that is looming over the job market: Hiring slowed sharply in August and September, even as the number of posted jobs was near record levels. In the past year, open jobs increased 62%. Yet overall hiring, as measured by Tuesday's report, declined slightly during that time.

The jump in quits suggests that fear of the delta variant is partly responsible for the shortfall in workers. In addition to driving quits, fear of the disease probably caused plenty of those out of work to not look for, or take, jobs.

As COVID-19 cases surged in August, quits soared in restaurants and hotels from the previous month and rose in other public-facing jobs, such as retail and education. Nearly 900,000 people left jobs at restaurants, bars, and hotels in August, up 21% from July. Quits by retail workers rose 6%.

Yet in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing, quits barely increased. In professional and business services, which includes fields such as law, engineering, and architecture, where most employees can work from home, quitting was largely flat.

Other factors also likely contributed to the jump in quits. With many employers desperate for workers and wages rising at a healthy pace, workers have a much greater ability to demand higher pay, or go elsewhere to find it.

The data from August is probably too early to reflect the impact of vaccine mandates. President Joe Biden's mandate was not announced until Sept. 9. United Airlines  announced its mandate in early August, but it was one of the first companies to do so. Layoffs were unchanged in August, the report found.

The government said Friday that job gains were weak for a second straight month in September, with only 194,000 jobs added, though the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%. Friday's hiring figure is a net total, after quits, retirements, and layoffs are taken into account. Tuesday's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, includes raw figures, and showed that total hiring in August fell sharply, to 6.3 million from 6.8 million in July.

The data is "highlighting the immense problems businesses are dealing with," said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, in an email. "Not enough people. Not enough equipment and/or parts. Meantime, customers are waiting for their orders, or waiting to place their orders. What a strange world this is."

Quits also rose the most in the South and Midwest, the government said, the two regions with the worst COVID outbreaks in August.

When workers quit, it is typically seen as a good sign for the job market, because people usually leave jobs when they already have other positions or are confident they can find one. The large increase in August probably does reflect some of that confidence among workers.

But the fact that the increase in quits was heavily concentrated in sectors that involve close contact with the public is a sign that fear of COVID also played a large role. Many people may have quit even without other jobs to take.

The sharp increase in job openings also has an international dimension: Job vacancies have reached a record level in the United Kingdom, though that is partly because many European workers left the U.K. after Brexit.