Is it time to rethink California fire policy?
As Californians sift through the cinders of last week's deadly wildfires, there is a growing consensus that the state's war against such...
The New York Times
Wildfire updateScope: 506,050 acres
Deaths: Seven directly from fire; seven involving evacuees, including infirmity, age, accident.
Damage: More than 2,300 structures destroyed
The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — As Californians sift through the cinders of last week's deadly wildfires, there is a growing consensus that the state's war against such disasters — as it is currently being fought — cannot be won.
"California has lost 1.5 million acres in the last four years," said Richard Minnich, a professor of earth sciences who teaches fire ecology at the University of California, Riverside. "When do we declare the policy a failure?"
Fire-management experts such as Minnich, who has compared fire histories in San Diego County and Baja California in Mexico, say the message is clear: Mexico has smaller fires that burn out naturally, regularly clearing out combustible underbrush and causing relatively little destruction because the cycle is still natural. California has giant fires because its longtime policies of fire suppression — in which the government has kept fires from their normal cycle — have created huge pockets of fuel that erupt into conflagrations that must be fought.
"We're on all year round," said Brett Chapman, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter who worked 15-hour shifts last week in the Lake Arrowhead area east of Los Angeles.
The main problem is that many in California are ruggedly obstinate about the choice they have made to live with the constant threat of fire. Even state officials interested in change concede it could take a decade — and more catastrophic wildfires — before it happens.
"If you're going to live in paradise, you're going to have to deal," said Randall Holloman, a bar and restaurant owner in Cedar Glen, which is in an area that has burned twice in four years.
In San Diego County, which has borne the brunt of recent fires, three of every four homes built since 1990 are in the dangerous zone where open spaces and housing meet. These are the most vulnerable and exposed places in fire season because wildfires by and large start in national forests, recreation areas and other publicly owned lands. About half of San Diego County is publicly owned, much of it in Cleveland National Forest.
Had last week's fires burned in the same locations in 1980, about 61,000 homes would have been within one mile of a fire. By 2000, the number would have grown to 106,000 homes, and this year it was 125,000, according to an analysis by the University of Wisconsin.
Nine fires continued to burn in a four-county area of Southern California on Saturday, and officials said 20,575 homes were still in danger.
It will take more than a week to put the fires out, officials said, and probably longer to stamp out flare-ups.
The long-term battle is one that fire experts suggest cannot be won, even with the better building codes and evacuation plans that have become a staple of government across much of the West. As the events of last week illustrate — at least 506,050 acres burned, 1,575 residences destroyed and at least seven people killed — the cycle roars on with higher stakes, greater risk and the grim certainty that it will happen again.
California State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan said discussions had begun at the highest levels of government on some of the toughest proposals: curtailing population growth on the wildland margins or a sweeping overhaul of how public lands are managed for fire danger. But decisions are perhaps five to 10 years away because of the enormity and complexity of the task.
"In the meantime," Dargan said, "we'll have more people living out there, and, if averages hold, we'll have two more catastrophic incidents like this before the decisions get made."
State and local governments are locked in an increasingly difficult battle with Mother Nature.
In the aftermath of the last big fires, in 2003, several state and local ordinances were passed in hopes of disrupting the cycle. Fire officials in San Diego County examined properties all through the fire zone, trying to determine exactly how each house had caught fire — by what vector an ember had gotten into an attic or under a deck, whether windows had imploded, whether the roof had been the weak point.
Building codes have been reworked. The new codes, which took effect in 2004, apply to new homes built in risky areas, most adjacent to Cleveland National Forest.
The new rules dictate requirements right down to which side of the house can have an attic vent (not the forest side). Decks with overhangs are natural nests for miniature swirling firestorms, so deck-design rules were changed, too.
New voluntary standards require special fire-resistant building materials, sprinkling systems and water-supply fixtures for firefighting and fire-resistant vegetation controls.
There are indications that some of the new rules may have made a difference in the current fires. Five housing projects have been built under the voluntary standards; all have survived the fires.
The state, using information gleaned from San Diego, also has moved ahead with new building codes, and an updated map of the state shows the risk zone for every piece of property in California.
Growth marches on
But few officials are talking seriously about stopping construction. San Diego officials make it clear that they will not restrain new construction in fire zones, even if it were possible to do so.
"The idea is not that we create goals and policies to slow growth; that's not the intent," said Jeff Murphy, the interim deputy director of at the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use. "It's to make sure that people are safe during a wildland fire."
The San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and three other environmental groups successfully sued in 2005 to block a proposed 57-home development near Lake Arrowhead, but that was the exception. Smaller communities such as Cedar Glen, near the San Bernardino National Forest, also are operating under new rules, including stipulations that homeowners provide 100 feet of defensible space around their homes.
Four years ago, most of the houses on Hook Creek Road in Cedar Glen burned to the ground when a blaze called the Old Fire came roaring out of the forest, devouring almost everything in its path.
History nearly repeated itself last week as the Slide Fire took almost the same path, burning south to north, up hills into towns, and off public lands onto private property.
Cedar Glen largely was spared. But fire destroyed 100 homes across Lake Arrowhead, the popular getaway where former President Reagan is said to have found the inspiration to run for public office.
More often than not, the human response after fire is to restore, not relocate, said Thomas Campanella, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and co-editor of the 2004 book "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster."
"After disaster, people are not in any mood to change further," Campanella said. "They already had their lives turned upside down, they want to get back to they way it was yesterday — turns out to be a very bad time to have vision."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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