Accentuating wildfire risks

Public left in dark on risks,Accentuating wildfire risks

18June 2005


The Sun has obtained a copy of a 201-page book plotting wildfire threats in the San Bernardino Mountains that identifies specific neighborhoods threatened by the type of dangers that led to hundreds of homes burning to their foundations in 2003.

Fire authorities published the “Structure Protection and Safety Plan’ two years ago, several weeks before the worst wildfire in the Inland Empire’s history. Despite the informative nature of the 1-inch-thick document, fire officials continue to refuse all requests for its release, including a Freedom of Information Act request made by The Sun in 2004.

The book pinpoints extreme and high wildfire hazards from Crestline across the mountain range through Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake before concluding with Oak Glen.

With splotches of vibrant reds and yellows, the book precisely indicates where a wildfire could erupt. By displaying the location of one-way-in, one-way-out mountain roads, it also shows where firefighters could be in danger of being trapped.

Therein lies one reason authorities cite when explaining why they must keep the map book confidential. They say an arsonist or perhaps even a terrorist could use it to figure out where best to start a fire.

“I’m not going to design a document that is an arsonist playbook,’ said William Bagnell, chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District and the architect behind the book’s inception. “It’s designed for firefighters’ safety, and that’s all it was.’

At the same time, the book could cause insurance rates for homes in red zones to soar, said San Bernardino County Fire Chief Peter Hills. Others worry about plummeting property values or people misinterpreting the maps by believing firefighters won’t defend their homes, which could cause a scare.

“You’re making the public panic?’ asked Donna Hendy, a longtime resident of Cedarpines Park. “The public has to panic. They need to be ready. Yes, it’s that bad.’

Some believe the decision to keep the book confidential is another example of an increasing trend among government officials from the local to the federal level to prevent the public from obtaining critical information.

In some cases, that information could lead to critiques of government action, or inaction, they say. And with the county enjoying a doubling of its revenue to more than $300 million, some see an opportunity to improve infrastructure and make mountain living safer.

“I just don’t understand why it has to be secret,’ said Hugh Campbell, a Cedar Glen resident who provided The Sun with a copy of the document.

Campbell declined to identify who gave him the book.

“The only way you really get people to fix a problem is to show it to them,’ he said.

“We are all owners of this country. We are all responsible for what happens. It is not up to a chosen few.’ 9/11 commissioner: Release book

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a member of the 9/11 Commission, told The Sun in a 2004 interview that the map book should be released. At the time, the federal government had been clamping down on maps and other details related to dams and power plants and other critical infrastructure.

Throughout the commission’s investigation into the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Kerrey argued that infrastructure information is owed to the public.

Terrorists will strike with or without the information, argued Kerrey, now the president of New School University in New York City. However, releasing the information will be more beneficial to the public, he said.

“It’s likely to improve public decision-making,’ Kerrey told The Sun last year. “The problem for officials is it leads the public to see we’re not doing enough. It catches us in a dilemma because the public will see more is needed.’

Assessing the merits of releasing the map book remains a tricky situation for many mountain dwellers living in the nation’s most urbanized national forest. The San Bernardino National Forest is home to as many as 100,000 people and 50,000 homes and businesses. Another side to release

“That’s two-sided,’ Jay Debaubien, 62, of Arrowhead Woods said of releasing the map book. “If I was buying a home up here, I would want to know. But if I was selling a home, I wouldn’t want it out there.’

The Los Angeles County Fire Department created a similar map book years ago. Officials there say theirs is a public document, and though they don’t advertise its existence, they provide copies when asked.

The map book of the mountain communities here remains a viable tool for battling wildfires, showing where to take extra care in extreme hazard areas and where to seek protection if overrun by a blaze.

Recently, the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce, a compilation of local, county, state and federal fire agencies with jurisdictional responsibilities in the San Bernardinos, began working with ESRI, the mapping-software giant in Redlands, to produce more copies of the book, said Thom Wellman, the county mountain division fire chief.

The key, Wellman said, was reducing the $65 cost per book. With ESRI’s help, costs will fall below $10 per copy.

The only changes are to evacuation routes, Wellman said. Red and yellow zones won’t change, regardless of how many trees and how much brush has been removed, because the roads are still too narrow and twisting, large fire engines can’t turn around, and the terrain is too steep.

“They’ll stay in those red areas as long as the infrastructure problems remain,’ Wellman said.

Geography hinders fire crews

Fire officials say the map book’s red and yellow designations do not prevent firefighters from entering those communities.

They referred to the Old Fire of 2003, which charred 92,000 acres of foothill and mountain land, incinerating nearly 1,000 homes and buildings. During that wind-whipped blaze of bug-killed, drought-ridden forest in late October and early November, firefighters entered some of those firetraps and fought flames in some red zones.

But they stayed out of Cedar Glen. The community, nestled in a box canyon, was filled with too many homes on too-small lots with narrow, twisting roads that had no turnarounds for firetrucks. It was known as a death trap. So when the blaze raced through the canyon, it destroyed 300 homes as engines sat idle just a few miles away.

Campbell, one of two residents who remained home and fought off the fire, said he thinks some government officials want to restrict access to the book as a means of promoting further growth in the mountains.

Already, many new homes are sprouting in Cedar Glen, and a handful of major projects will be coming before the Board of Supervisors in the weeks and months ahead.

“You mean they are going to be new homes built in a red zone where they are going to burn down again eventually?’ Campbell said. “That needs to be part of public debate. If this came out, it would be very detrimental because it would stop development on the mountain. It would show people that there is no safe infrastructure on the mountain to support it.”
About the book

The “Structure Protection and Safety Plan’ was created by the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce, a compilation of local, county, state and federal agencies charged with protecting the San Bernardino National Forest and its tens of thousands of residents. The map book, published on Aug. 15, 2003, lists the fire dangers by “high’ and “extreme’ levels. The book was paid for with tax dollars but has never been released to the public.

Authorities say the book, published by mountain fire agencies, must be kept from the public because an arsonist, or perhaps even a terrorist, could use it to figure out where best to start a fire. 


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