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Thursday, July 25, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: Lessons Learned from the Tubbs Wildfire Disaster Can Help Build More Climate-Resilient Infrastructure

Damage from the fires included a combination of thermal degradation (i.e., melting, burning, and pyrolysis) of plastic pipes and/or entry of ash, soot, and other debris into the piping and ancillary equipment during the fire event. During a loss of water pressure, contamination was back-siphoned into water service lines, where it entered into the components of the water infrastructure. Exhaustive attempts to flush these contaminants out have been unsuccessful.

The frequency and severity of natural catastrophes in the United States is on the rise. Over the past five years, our nation has experienced an average of 18 one-billion-dollar climate disasters each year. This dangerous trend illustrates the need for our country to invest in the resilience of the structures in which we live and work and the infrastructure that supports our everyday lives. To combat these catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters, we must think more resiliently and build stronger, especially when it comes to critical lifeline infrastructure systems.

The growing climate risk is forcing policymakers and emergency management experts to holistically reevaluate our national mitigation approach. The adoption and enforcement of appropriate standards for the use of resilient materials and life safety methods in construction is something that is often overlooked, but must be prioritized and incentivized by federal programs and policies. Like with residential construction and development, the enforcement of these standards dramatically increases the resiliency of lifeline infrastructure. Disaster impacts are far-reaching and often present themselves in unforeseen ways following an actual climate event. Encouraging the replacement of vulnerable infrastructure with infrastructure that meets higher standards will result in the avoidance of or reduction in damage, service interruptions, and reconstruction costs.

A recent example of this dynamic was present in the water infrastructure in Santa Rosa, California in 2017, in which residents were dealt not one, but two crushing post-disaster blows. Following the Tubbs wildfire, Santa Rosa residents were prohibited from returning to their homes to assess damage because of a new threat: sinkholes and landslides. Due to extreme heat from the blazes that destroyed more than 5,000 homes and killed 23 people, plastic storm drains running underground melted, which created the risk of collapses and slides following subsequent heavy rains. Overall, approximately thirty-one locations across Santa Rosa were identified that caused concern for sinkholes because of melted water infrastructure. This slowed recovery in several ways, such as forcing reactivation of the Emergency Operations Center, creating the need for door-to-door alerts, and the deployment additional resources in an already constrained scenario for the community.

In November that same year, Santa Rosa Water received a taste and odor complaint from a resident. In response, department staff took water samples and found contaminants including benzene, a volatile organic compound (VOC) never detected in Santa Rosa’s water system previously. Officials conducted a thorough investigation into the cause of the contamination and determined the source present in the water distribution system as the wildfires that burned through the affected area in October. Damage from the fires included a combination of thermal degradation (i.e., melting, burning, and pyrolysis) of plastic pipes and/or entry of ash, soot, and other debris into the piping and ancillary equipment during the fire event. During a loss of water pressure, contamination was back-siphoned into water service lines, where it entered into the components of the water infrastructure. Exhaustive attempts to flush these contaminants out have been unsuccessful.

Taking lessons learned from disasters like the Tubbs wildfire, governments and the private sector must incentivize actions that improve the resiliency of new construction, particularly through the adoption of codes and standards, as well as encourage the identification and implementation of disaster-resistant techniques for retrofitting aged structures. Resilient materials can absorb a shock and still return to their original state, meaning the material remaining in the elastic region of the stress-strain curve. However, for materials to remain resistant to shocks, they must be installed correctly and to technical specifications. It is unclear if the materials used prior to the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa were installed using these criteria. As we invest tax dollars into rebuilding, Congress and federal programs should require awardees to provide evidence and verify that installation of the products have been done so in accordance with proper standards and in a resilient manner.

We must help our communities rebuild and recover while providing them with the necessary resources to prevent future destruction. It’s time to stop the endless cycle of rebuilding to the same, outdated standards after each disaster. As the Santa Rosa community experienced, the effects of a disaster can stretch far beyond its initial impact. Mitigation saves lives, property, taxpayer money, and the environment. Most importantly, mitigation provides peace of mind to those in the path of disasters.

Natalie Enclade
Natalie Enclade
Natalie Enclade, Ph.D. joined the BuildStrong Coalition as its Executive Director in 2021. Prior to joining BuildStrong, Enclade served as the Director of Individual and Community Preparedness for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As Director, she oversaw programs that partner at all levels of government, the private sector, and community organizations to increase citizen and community preparedness and encourage the development of disaster resilience across the Nation. The BuildStrong Coalition is made up of a diverse group of members representing firefighters, emergency responders, emergency managers, insurers, engineers, architects, contractors, and manufacturers, as well as consumer organizations, code specialists, and many others committed to building a more disaster resilient nation.

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