IN MID-OCTOBER 2017, Jay Selby turned on the TV news to see what he knew to be a “really detrimental” fire. “If you’ve worked in this industry long enough, you know you’re going to be involved,” says Selby, president of Selby’s Soil Erosion Control Co. in Newcastle, CA. “There were a lot of upscale homes there and major watershed impacts.”
It wasn’t a typical California wildfire, such as a summer campfire in a rural area spreading but causing little damage, he points out. This one had a more intense personal feel. “Everything was very dry. There were unprecedented winds, 75 miles an hour. This thing took off and spread fast,” says Selby. “Most people were evacuated in the middle of the night. Some didn’t make it. People who couldn’t evacuate in time jumped into their swimming pools.” The fire didn’t just take out the rural forest areas that normally fuel such blazes, but jumped into flat residential neighborhoods and hilly Santa Rosa areas with multimillion-dollar homes, says Selby. “It jumped a six-lane highway and hopped over into commercial land, taking out several businesses,” he says, adding that it also
obliterated 4,000 homes in a 2-mile radius at Coffey Park, burning 8,400 structures in total.
Post-fire erosion control “is never planned work, but it seems to happen every year where we have massive wildfires,” says Selby. “Our customer base is all over the board. It could be the US Forest Service for a huge area of national forest land that’s burned down.” Another client is sometimes the California Department of Water Resources when lakes or reservoirs serving as drinking water sources are surrounded by fire, as was the case with the fires that ravaged northern California in October 2017.
“We have so many reservoirs, lakes, and rivers because we get so much rainfall,” he adds. “We have the Sierra Nevada Mountains that have a huge snowpack. Northern California is feeding Southern California most of its water supply and also providing agricultural crops, rice, and wine for the world.” Under normal circumstances, “we let the dust settle on fires and don’t contact agencies for about a month,” says Selby. “Wildfires in California normally happen in August, not in October where we have winter setting in really fast. Within a couple of days, I was contacted by Jack Broadbent at Caltrans headquarters, telling me to get ready. There were 50 miles of freeways impacted by this fire that spread out over multiple counties.”