Are we better prepared?

Are we better prepared?

19 October 2008

published by

USA — As North County residents arrive at the one-year anniversary of the Witch Creek and Guejito fires — which burned through portions of Escondido and Valley Center — officials are cautiously optimistic about the forecast for the current fire season.

Bill Metcalf, chief executive officer of the North County Fire Prevention District, said Santa Ana winds that fueled last year’s fires are expected to be milder this year, and the brush won’t be quite as dry.

“Although we haven’t had rain, it’s not as critically dry as it was this time a year ago,” Metcalf said. “I would call this more of a normal year.”

However, North County is not immune from another Witch Creek- or Cedar-scale blaze. A fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres at Camp Pendleton last weekend serves as a reminder of the region’s vulnerability.

“We commonly think of those Santa Ana winds blowing from east to west,” San Marcos Fire Battalion Chief Rick Vogt said. “However, we just saw Camp Pendleton burn, and that was a predominantly western, onshore wind.”

Though the region is not as dry as last year, the situation is a matter of degrees, and the state remains in the midst of a drought, Vogt said.

“The grass, the brush and the trees — going from the smallest fuels to the largest fuels — are dry, and that’s a problem. … People really need to think of dry grass and brush as fuel. When wildland fires break out, it burns like gasoline … with the same explosiveness.”

Last year, before the Witch Creek fire in North County and the Harris fire in East County, a task force mapped two areas of the county most susceptible to wildfires — the exact areas where those blazes erupted.

The Forest Area Safety Task Force, a collection of more than 80 federal, state and local fire agencies formed to protect the county from wildfires, pinpointed three new areas this year where resources should be used to build firebreaks and thin forests.

One of those regions, a 124,000-acre area stretching from the south side of Palomar Mountain toward Valley Center, Rainbow and Bonsall, poses a real threat to Escondido, Metcalf said.

“The really catastrophic fires tend to happen in fuel beds that haven’t burned for more than 50 years,” he said. “Those high danger areas that the task force identified are portions of the county that haven’t burned for that long.”

Last October, Escondido was threatened from the south and east by the Witch Creek and Guejito fires and from the north by the Poomacha fire, which broke out when a house caught fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

“When the Poomacha fire was going up on Palomar Mountain, parts of Deer Springs were under advisory evacuation notices because there was fear that the fire would come right down through Valley Center and Deer Springs into the north side of Escondido,” Metcalf said. “It all depends on which way the wind blows, but those areas of high hazard fuel all connect.”

Of the nearly 1,700 homes that burned in the county during last October’s wildfires, 36 homes were in Escondido.

In San Marcos, a fire in the Coronado Hills burned nearly 100 acres, though it was contained overnight and no homes burned.

The cause of that fire is still under investigation, Vogt said.

The smallest of the three areas identified as most vulnerable to a wildfire this season includes 32,000 acres in Rancho Santa Fe and parts of Del Dios and Olivenhain, south of San Marcos.

San Marcos hasn’t had a major blaze come through since the Harmony Grove fire in 1996, which torched heavily wooded areas in the southern portion of the city, near where the San Elijo Hills development is now located.

A new fire station in San Elijo Hills — one of four new stations in San Marcos — replaced a 500-square-foot temporary facility this year. One of three new fire engines with off-road capacity is located there.

“They carry a different type of hose, different hand tools and equipment for fighting wildland fires,” Vogt said.

The county’s aerial firefighting arsenal also is better equipped this year.

Cal Fire has four air tankers and two air attack planes at its Ramona air base. The county also has two Forest Service tankers, one large “heli-tanker,” a half-dozen helicopters from various agencies and two CL-415 Super Scoopers leased this year by the county.

“We clearly have more aerial assets than we’ve ever had,” Metcalf said.

“Those aircraft can’t put fires out by themselves, but they play a huge role in keeping them small so that the ground troops can get in and put them out.”

After battling huge county blazes in 2003 and 2007, and helping fight a massive blaze in Northern California this summer, fire safety personnel are more experienced in dealing with wildfires, Metcalf said.

“That has allowed us to exercise our systems to make our processes more effective,” he said. However, Metcalf noted, there has been no infusion of cash into the county for fire safety.

“We haven’t been able to buy new fire engines and we haven’t been able to hire a whole bunch more firefighters, so from that perspective we’re not that much different than a year ago.”

Escondido Fire Department spokeswoman Carol Rea said she is concerned about both the capacity for old growth and new growth to burn.

“Low, dry grass can provide a root for fire, especially with the dry summer we’ve had,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of dry fuel out there.”

Rea suggested that home-owners act now to cut back excess growth and clear away dead branches and plants from around homes and other structures.

This defensible space should be a 100- to 150-foot barrier around the home.

“In general, the more defensible space the better,” Vogt said. “What that means is thinning the fuel that’s available to carry a fire from adjacent property, an open wildland area, canyons or the mountains to your structure.”

Information on creating a defensible space is available online from Fire Safe Council, Fire Safe California and Cal Fire.

Residents should register cell phone numbers for the Reverse 911 system so they can be notified of evacuations, Metcalf said. People can register online at

“I think they’ve experienced only a 3 percent compliance rate with people actually signing up their cell phones,” he said.

During the Cedar fire in 2003, there was no such system in place.

“The evacuations happened too late; the notifications weren’t timely enough,” Metcalf said. “This last time we had gotten much better in planning for and putting together evacuation plans in our rural communities and … the public got to experience what it’s like to actually get those messages and have to leave.”

However, Metcalf said, the Reverse 911 system is not a magic bullet.

“There are still people that they won’t reach,” he said.

Rea said people should alert their neighbors and look out for one another.

“We try to help everybody we can, but neighbors need to watch out for each other. (That may) mean making room for one more as you’re evacuating. I think we saw people helping each other last fall. It just may take a little bit more of that.”

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