–Including how a pot grower got nabbed stealing water!
As I started writing this story, the embers were still hot. More than 8,000 homes or buildings had been burned. Nearly 50 people confirmed dead with many more missing. Hundreds of thousands of acres of burning that had gone on for more than a week. Losses in the billions of dollars, and this firestorm was called the worst natural disaster in California history. The Tubbs and Pocket fires were threatening a number of XiO’s hundreds of water systems. This was a direct hit very near XiO’s Sonoma County water systems.
And then a bigger fire hit. Directly in the center of another XiO stronghold, Ventura County. I heard a reporter from CBS news reporting from Ventura, California, one night, surrounded by XiO water systems for the agricultural growers.
We were just into the second devastating fire, and already a lesson had been learned. By the power company. Turn off the power during strong, dry winds in order to reduce ignition of fires when “re-closers” come on.
I was watching our entire XiO Southern California water map when XiO’s local control systems threw power failure alarms over many hundreds of square miles. Lesson learned. In Sonoma, the local power company may or may not have had any responsibility for the fires, however one theory is that some fires were started from sparking as hurricane-strength winds—over 100 miles per hour—thrashed trees into electric lines and electric lines into trees. Some power lines were equipped with the equivalent of a self-resetting circuit breaker that—after a trip—waits some time and then tries to re-power or re-close the circuit. If the fault was transient, then it’s possible to avoid sending a crew out while immediately restoring power. In theory, though, the re-closing could spark a fire. A lesson to be learned.
Lesson Learned: by the Southern California electric company was not only to not re-start circuits but to proactively shut down the power. Did this Lesson work? The jury is still out, that’s for sure. The power company in the Ventura area appeared to have acted very quickly in shutting down the power, however the fire went on to become the largest in state history. The Ventura County fire went to displace the still burning—Largest Structure Fire in California—the Sonoma County fire. The Ventura County fire became the Largest Structure Fire in California.
Our company, XiO, is in the water business. We provide control systems to run pumps, filters, provide disinfection and manage tanks and reservoirs.
Setting aside the question of how this fire could have happened, what water system lessons have we learned about how we can handle this kind of devastation in the future?
Our company has dozens of systems in Sonoma and Napa Counties, the epicenter of the first of these devastating wild fires. Fire touched three of our customers’ water systems, only one seriously. During the peak of the fire, the paramount question was “How much water do we have on hand?” In the most seriously affected systems, we always knew how much water we had.
In Ventura County, XiO also had dozens of systems, mostly agricultural. Out of all these systems, only one well was affected and it only sustained minor damage.
Lesson Learned: Irrigated agricultural land did not burn extensively in either fire. We have heard a number of people say that the irrigated lands acted as a fire-break to protect homes. We know that our agricultural customers were furiously pumping all during the fires, since the power was only out for a brief few hours. Whether it was grapes, citrus or avocados, the irrigated crop lands were not involved in the fires from our experience.
Lesson Learned: A local water source is valuable and directly aids in fire fighting. A community of 100 service connections might have a 100,000 storage tank. That will refill a typical fire engine more than fifty times. And the pumping rate into the system can fill a fire truck in five to ten minutes. That is, IF THERE IS WATER in storage and electricity to pump.
I am proud to say that XiO’s customers were aware of their water storage status most of the time. (See the lesson below about the cellular network.) We had one customer in Sonoma that reportedly lost two homes in a 20 home development. Most had planned carefully to mitigate wildfires, and it worked for them.
Lesson Learned: Relying upon the cellular network for water system operation was proven to be a mistake. Fortunately none of our XiO systems required the cellular network to be active in order for pumps to operate and fill tanks.
Our experience in the recent fires was that the cellular service and cable systems both went dark at about the same time, within one hour of the time the fire leapt across U.S. Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, California. I will hasten to add that a fire crossing a U.S. Highway in the middle of Santa Rosa—the county seat—caught many people by surprise. I have read that the cellular carrier’s optical fiber network running down the U.S. Highway melted. Restoration took more than 48 hours. For more than four days, XiO customers could not visualize their systems, however all the systems continued to operate perfectly, filling tanks to the highest allowable levels
The field-based control systems must act autonomously without outside connection to avoid dependence on the Cellular or Cable Networks.
Knowing how much water you have allows manual actuation of pumps. At one of our sites, we lost communication from the well site for nearly 12 hours when fire burned a power pole supplying well power. The tank location had sporadic power and was still reporting to our Cloud servers, so we knew how much water we had. The operator was able to drive to the well site and start a well pump on HAND with a generator. It was inefficient, but our customer knew how much water they had, and their tanks were full until the fire damage could be addressed twelve hours later.
However, two of our systems suffered a loss of visibility into the systems, but no loss of property. We have learned a few lessons about how to handle future disasters.
Lesson Learned: An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) cannot help you pump during a power outage, but a UPS—with enough holdup time—can help you to always know how much water you have and what any pressure zone measurements are.
Many UPS’s we see can only provide 15 to 30 minutes of backup after a power outage. Our XiO UPS will usually run five hours which has proven adequate for us for six years. The recent California conflagration left our customers without power for between 24 and 48 hours. That outage exhausted all of our UPS batteries.
Lesson Learned: Pump when you can and keep your tanks full. Conserve Water! The principal goal of all of our customers was to fill their water tanks as full as possible and then keep them full, pumping when they had dropped only six inches. Tanks in Sonoma County are typically keep at only 70% full or so to provide for water motion after an earthquake. An earthquake can cause the roof of a tank to be knocked off in an earthquake, and the tank can then collapse. During the fires, however, our customers kept their tanks just short of overflow.
Dark and Ironic Humor: In the midst of the fire, one community was faced with a complete power outage from burned transmission lines above the development. The fire was headed their direction. Smoke was thick. Luckily, XiO had been in close contact with the operator of record for the water system. He had refused evacuation, knowing that the community lake was about 2,000 feet away. He and his son decided to stay and fight the fire and keep the water system working. During the chaotic time, XiO was watching their main 100,000 gallon reservoir level. It was being drained at a rate twice the normal rate. The water loss was steady, indicating either a leak or very constant use rate. Long story short, the water operator of record used the XiO flow information to zero in on a pot farmer, cultivating cannabis. “If the fire hits my place,” said the grower, “I don’t want my pot to burn!” A water board meeting was called on the spot and a ruling was made to shut off service. The water store was protected! This little system came out with no lost homes, which is more than can be said for so many other of the thousands of lost homes.
We offer our thoughts and prayers to all those victims of the two worst fires to burn California.