Inland fire departments await Santa Ana season with dread, too few resources

Inland fire departments await Santa Ana season with dread, too few resources

21 September 2008

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USA — Three of the most destructive wildfires in California history have ravaged San Bernardino County during the past 30 years, burning 1,600 buildings in mountaintop towns and foothill neighborhoods in and around San Bernardino.

Now, as fire chiefs await this year’s return of the blustery Santa Ana winds, some warn that history will repeat itself.

They cite two key reasons: The dangerously overgrown condition of the drought- and insect-weakened San Bernardino National Forest and the difficulty of moving additional fire crews and equipment into Southern California quickly enough when multiple catastrophic fires are burning and officials are competing for reinforcements.

“We dodged a bullet this year with Northern California burning (in June and July) while Southern California was quiet,” said Chief Pat Dennen, head of the San Bernardino County Fire Department and acting mutual aid coordinator for six Southern California counties. “If they’d have been burning simultaneously, we’d have had a real problem. We don’t have enough (crews and equipment) to do both.”

Dennen is among a growing chorus of fire chiefs and forest experts who are warning homeowners to protect their property by removing dead trees, reducing the number of live trees and eliminating wildfire hazards like ground clutter and low-hanging tree limbs.

The warnings coincide with the second anniversary of the October 2006 Esperanza Fire that killed five firefighters who were trying to protect homes in the San Jacinto Mountains.

“If a homeowner isn’t interested enough to protect their own property by clearing the brush and cutting the trees back … then I can’t risk putting firefighters in there to save it,” said Dennen. “It’s a partnership.”

A professor who has studied fires in the San Bernardino National Forest for decades is even more blunt.

“People seem to think they can live amid fuel, and the firefighters are going to save them. It’s a myth,” said Richard Minnich, of UC Riverside. “A green tree is a bomb: It’s stored energy ready to blow up in your face.”

In his view, there are few communities in or near the heavily populated San Bernardino National Forest that aren’t in grave peril.

The forest is dangerously overgrown because of 100 years of aggressive firefighting, he says. Even worse, most forest and foothill homes are built of combustible materials, and there are few teeth in laws requiring property owners to reduce the fire danger, he said.

His solution: Require homeowners to reduce the tree density on their property and mandate that fire-damaged homes be repaired or replaced using fireproof materials and designs.

Only sheer luck — and fewer homes in and near the forest — have shielded Riverside County from the destruction that repeatedly has hit San Bernardino County, he said.

But there are no guarantees.

“Idyllwild is a mess. The whole town could burn up very easily,” Minnich said. “Reduce the density of trees to roughly 40 per acre. It’s running 100-plus in nearly all that area.”

Past Catastrophes

Measured by the number of buildings destroyed, California’s worst blaze was the October 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 4,847 homes and other buildings in San Diego County.

The top 20 worst blazes in the state’s history don’t include any in Riverside County. But three San Bernardino County fires rank fourth, 13th and 18th:

“I think there’s going to be another one,” said Battalion Chief Mike Alder, of the San Bernardino City Fire Department. “I know there’s going to be another one.”

The city’s worst blazes, including the 1980 Panorama Fire and the 2003 Old Fire, were fanned by Santa Ana winds that can exceed 50 mph, driving flames south out of forest canyons and blowing burning embers more than a quarter-mile ahead of the fire.


45 Minutes to Disaster

The Old Fire roared out of Waterman Canyon, taking 45 minutes to reach the nearest San Bernardino neighborhoods, and two or three hours to reduce 200 homes to ashes.

Then and now, the city has 52 firefighters on duty at any given time.

Together, they can staff 12 fire engines.

“We can double that in a very short period of time,” Alder said.

But that wouldn’t be enough, he said. “The problem is: We’d need tons — 1,000 firefighters,” he said.

As the Old Fire advanced, Alder radioed an emergency request for reinforcements: 25 strike teams totaling 125 fire engines staffed by 500 firefighters, but it took them hours to get there.

“Most of them arrived at 4 or 5 in the afternoon,” Alder said. “The vast majority of homes had already burned.”

There were too many competing fires, whose commanders also were hollering for reinforcements.

When that happens, additional crews must be summoned from Northern California or out of state, guaranteeing delays.

Regional Planning

“It’s common sense,” said Dennen, the acting regional mutual aid coordinator. “Fire trucks … only go 55 or 65 mph. If you’re coming from Redding, it’s going to take 10 or 12 hours to get here.”

One solution: Pre-position reinforcements, just in case.

Last November, drought conditions and a forecast of strong winds prompted Dennen to bring about 200 out-of-county fire engines to San Bernardino and base them at the National Orange Show grounds.

As it turned out, they weren’t needed locally.

“But as a result of having them here, they packed up and all went to another fire in Malibu,” Dennen said.

Now he faces a conundrum: He knows the Santa Anas will return by October or November. Should he again pre-position extra fire crews? If so, when?

“If you set a precedent with the public, they’re going to expect it,” Dennen said.

“If you don’t use them, it’s costly. But if you don’t do it and you need them, you get criticized.”

Depending upon what other fires are burning, and what the weather forecast calls for elsewhere, out-of-county fire chiefs may not be willing to loan their crews and equipment.

“We can only do it,” he said, “when we have the resources.”

Worst fires

California’s most destructive blaze was the October 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 4,847 structures in San Diego County. Three of the worst have been in the Inland area.

4th: The Old Fire, October 2003, 1,003 buildings from Crestline and Running Springs to the San Bernardino foothills.

13th: Panorama Fire, November 1980, 325 buildings, mostly in San Bernardino.

18th: Slide Fire, October 2007, 272 buildings, mostly in Grass Valley near Lake Arrowhead.

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