Fire report: Life over structure

Fire report: Life overstructure

5 June 2007

published by

USA — Plansays high-risk areas also need mapping.

A new report in the aftermath of thedeadly Esperanza wildfire says firefighting needs to emphasize “thepriority of life over structure protection.”

The action plan obtained by The Desert Sun suggests using the tragedy as alearning tool to deliver “strong messages” within the firefightingcommunity.

As reported on Monday, the report from the U.S. ForestService and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)also urges distributing all existing maps of high-risk wildland-urban interfaceareas.

It calls for charting unmapped high-risk areas, “highlighting areas suchas the Twin Pines basin area.” The maps list the homes firefighters shouldnot protect in the interest of their safety.

The unoccupied Twin Pines home the Forest Service crew tried to protect wasdeemed indefensible due to its dangerous, remote location in a 2002 Cal Fireevaluation of the area. That information was not shared with the firefighters onOct. 26, when the Santa Ana wind-fueled fire swept over them just after 7 a.m.

As wildfire-fighting agencies attempt to learn lessons from the blaze, one ofthe most difficult changes firefighters may have to make is fighting theirinstincts and letting homes burn, Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley saidMonday.

“You get these situations where if firemen are going to be in greatperil, they just have to let those structures go,” he said. “And theseguys are not built to do that.”

Reba Coulter, executive director of the Mountain Communities Fire SafeCouncil, a citizen group that encourages homeowners to be proactive inprotecting their homes, said she doesn’t expect firefighters to put themselvesin danger to defend her Crestview Drive house.

“Human life is far more important than any home,” she said.

Changing the culture

Dick Mangan has spent more than four decades fighting and studying wildfiresand working to protect firefighters. He’s the past president of theInternational Association of Wildland Fire.

Because they’re human, it’s difficult for firefighters to put such policyinto practice, Mangan said. For them, it’s not an abstract, bureaucraticdecision, he said.

“Maybe your kids go to the same school as the people who own that house;maybe you attend the same church,” he said. “When you know the peoplepersonally, it’s a much more difficult decision to make.”

Changing the culture, not just among firefighters but in society’sexpectations of them, “is going to take serious effort,” he said.

“We very seldom congratulate people or give them great acknowledgementfor bringing their crew back alive with three homes burned down,” he said.

“What’s going to happen when (a news helicopter) has a picture of anengine crew sitting on their butts as a home burns up because it wasn’t safe togo into it? Do you think that’s going to go over well?”

About 5 million homes – 10 percent to 20 percent of California’s housing -are in the state’s fire zones.

County supervisors and planners should work with firefighters to ascertainthe most dangerous, wildfire-prone locales and develop land-use regulations thatstop irresponsible development of those areas, Mangan said.

The public, developers, real estate professionals and home insurers shouldthen be fully informed about what’s defensible and what isn’t, he said.

“I understand there are some really sensitive social and politicalissues in telling people their homes won’t be protected putting (indefensiblehomes) out on a map like that,” he said.

Mangan applauded a proposed policy review of key factors in firefightersmaking educated risk management decisions, outlined in the Esperanza action planreport.

Mangan proposed a checklist firefighters can use, similar to ones pilots usebefore flying.

It would review factors such as fire and weather behavior, topography, thelocation of homes and how they are built and other factors “that could makea difference between life and death.”

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