Inferno: The New Normal

Dec. 14, 2017

A wildfire, on target to become the largest in California’s history, is actively consuming the valley that I call home. The Thomas Fire has left hundreds of thousands of once brushy, chaparral-covered acres between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties bare, outlined in shades of charcoal gray.

The blaze continues to spread with 236,000 acres burned as of Wednesday, December 13th. At last count, 904 structures have been lost. Another 18,000 are considered threatened.

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Our area is not alone in experiencing these destructive events. The increasing severity and frequency of wildfires is of concern to folks everywhere—and, in particular, to thousands of water utility personnel across the country. This week I experienced firsthand the importance of critical water technologies used to support fire suppression. I learned valuable lessons about backup power sources and high capacity tank selection in anticipation of major natural disasters and fire events.  

My family raises avocados on a ranch south of Santa Barbara. We irrigate our orchards from an onsite well and an agricultural water allocation from a nearby lake. Last week our well pump failed, so we’ve been dependent on the reservoir source until a replacement pump arrives.

Our area’s water distribution system is a reliable and efficient one. Similar to the conveyance process that takes place at thousands of utilities across America, water from a lake is pumped uphill and collected in storage tanks. Those tanks gravity feed water to homes, farms, and businesses in the valley below.

As the wildfire approached this week, it consumed powerlines and transformers, leaving a wide area without any electricity.  The pump system to the tank was left without power. Furthermore, with the surrounding area engulfed in flames, it was unsafe for utility personnel to bring in portable generators.

Any farmer will tell you that watering crops is a good idea in the event of a fire—it’s beneficial not only to keep plants hydrated, but it can often help prevent the fire from spreading. However, because the tanks could not be refilled and the water in them was needed to save homes, farmers in our valley were asked not to irrigate their groves.

Large areas of our orchards burned. The snap of flames and the scent of smoldering foliage will not soon fade from my memory. Some of the trees will regrow. Others we will remove and replant. Nonetheless, the event serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of auxiliary power—the melted irrigation lines are a haunting symbol.

What measures has your organization taken to ensure that customers have access to water during natural disasters? 
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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