NEMA Responds to California Wildfires

NEMA Responds to California Wildfires

This piece was originally published in the January 2018 issue of electroindustry.

Mike Stone, West Coast Field Representative, NEMA

Wildfires continue to ravage parts of Southern California, including the Thomas Fire that recently was ranked as the state’s second-largest on record. More than 1,000 homes and other buildings have been destroyed and about 18,000 structures remained threatened as a result of unseasonably dry conditions. At the peak of what was termed the October Fire Siege in Northern California, 21 major wildfires forced the evacuation of some 100,000 people, causing 42 fatalities and record-setting property damage.

Through the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Disaster Service Worker program, I assisted with fire damage assessment in the Napa County fires. Although the Cal OES program is mainly focused on earthquake damage assessment, the fire damage was so severe that local building officials requested its help. With about 30 field personnel involved, it took three days to complete the assessment.

Unlike flood damage, where many structures can be repaired after waters recede, most structures in the path of a wildfire are either unscathed or completely destroyed; few are partially damaged. Of the 40-plus properties that my inspection partner and I posted as unsafe, only two were partially damaged; the rest were total losses.

I distributed and explained NEMA’s Evaluating Fire- and Heat-Damaged Electrical Equipment to inspection personnel and forwarded it to damage assessment teams in other areas.

Electrical problems ranged from the effects of radiant heat to gasoline availability:

  • The most common electrical damage in structures that survived was from radiant heat. Some exterior walls appeared intact, but cable inside the walls was damaged.
  • Some residents whose structures survived were without power because the utility distribution infrastructure was destroyed. Many of them connected portable generators to their electrical systems to keep systems and pumps running. This was a real concern with numerous utility crews restoring power in the area. Improper generator connections can pose a backfeed hazard to line workers. We briefed inspection teams on what to look for to verify that the temporary connections were safe.
  • Gasoline was scarce. Some gas stations ran out of gas from people filling up as they evacuated. Others were without power and unable to pump the gas that they did have. Combined with road closures, some rural residents found themselves 20 to 40 miles from the nearest gas.

As often happens after natural catastrophes, officials will likely take a closer look at building codes to see if there revisions would lessen the impact of future events.

NEMA will continue to offer assistance necessary to ensure that communities can rebuild safe, smart, and resilient.

Download Evaluating Fire- and Heat-Damaged Electrical Equipment (Evaluación de equipo eléctrico dañado por fuego y calor) on the NEMA website.

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