The November 8, 2018 wildfire called the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise California. But, it did not destroy the entire town. Some buildings and houses survived the firestorm, but not because of flukes of fate, instead some homeowners prepared ahead of time because they knew about the fire risk. Thinking about how these homeowners avoided losing their houses, it is clear on-site electricity storage systems, among other preparations, could have saved more homes.
Paradise is an absolute disaster right now. Almost an entire town burned to the ground, leaving 50,000 or more people homeless, and making the air an unbreathable hazard. As we discussed in the previous post, there was little that could be done because of how quickly the fire moved, and because of the dry tinder-like condition of the forests.
The video embedded below is a feel-good humanitarian story about a couple men who managed to survive the firestorm, and to protect their homes. You could watch this and say “oh, it’s nice that these guys managed to pull it out” and “oh, it must have been terrifying to stay in Paradise while the town burned down around them”, but either would miss out on a possible learning. Instead we can learn from their lesson.
The first, Tom Witherspoon, is said to have learned from a previous fire. He recognized the fire danger he lived among, and took action. He contacted CalFire (the state fire agency) for advice, and kept the terrain around his house clear of brush for over 100 feet in all directions. Further, he installed a sprinkler system on the roof of his house, and on his wood pile, so he could wet down the property in case of fire. Finally, he installed a generator so he could pump water even if the electrical grid went out.
Another Paradise resident, Calvin Dailey, took a similar tactic even though it wasn’t as well developed. A few weeks ago he bought a generator so he could keep pumping well water in case the electrical grid went out. On the night of the fire, he stayed home and kept spraying his property using garden hoses.
Both of them must have had a harrowing night, keeping their property wet while watching their town burn to ashes. But let’s step back from that story, and look at the facts. What was required?
- Steady water supply — in this case they had their own well
- Local electricity supply that doesn’t get cut off — in this case diesel-run generators
- Clearing brush from the property
- Steadfastness of purpose to survive such a firestorm
That second point, ensuring a local uninterrupted electricity supply, is something we can focus on. One could do exactly as they did, and buy a diesel generator. That has been the traditional choice for off-grid living or to simply keep the electricity running if the electrical grid goes out. But what’s needed is some kind of energy storage system, and a diesel generator is only one of several methods.
Nowadays battery-based electricity storage systems are falling in price. Battery prices overall are falling rapidly partly due to increasing electric car sales. That fact is starting to make battery energy storage systems a better choice than a diesel generator. Not only can energy storage systems serve as an emergency backup system, they can help with daily electricity needs. A home solar power system could be sized to supply electricity 24 hours a day, by having an on-site energy storage system to carry the home through the night.
Getting back to the situation in Paradise. Any of the homes which had their own well could have been saved with the combination just outlined. Secondly, I am guessing the city water supply would have been more reliable if energy storage units were colocated with all pumping stations in the water system. The second video embedded below tells the story of another man who survived the fire. He relied on the city water system which went out of service about halfway through the fire, so he relied on the above-ground pool in his backyard for water. The electrical grid went down due to the fire, but an energy storage system could have kept the water system pressurized allowing more folks to protect their homes.
This solution isn’t limited to areas that see wildfires. Every area has potential environmental disasters whether it is extreme snowfall, extreme hurricanes, extreme tornado’s or earthquakes. The electrical grid could go down for a long list of possible reasons from suicidal squirrels to truck accidents to sabotage to natural disasters and more. ConEdison (near New York City) launched a program of distributed energy management that includes on-site energy storage systems following Hurricane Sandy, and a key selling point was to continue electricity service in the wake of a Hurricane.
Bottom line is that perhaps we must accept wildfires, and other disasters, as the new normal, and to prepare ourselves. Climate change is happening, and the climate is warming. In California that means less rainfall and a dryer climate leaving the state saddled with a tremendous amount of dry vegetation. It is easily predicted that we’ll see an increasing number of wildfires.
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