Harris Sherline: The Other Side of ‘Let It Burn’ Debate

Harris Sherline: The Other Side of ‘Let It Burn’ Debate

20 May 2009

published by www.noozhawk.com


The following are responses to comments made in aMay 11 Noozhawk commentary titled “‘Let It Burn’ Policy a Disaster Waiting to Happen.” The responses were gleaned from a discussion I had with Don Oaks, a retired chief officer with theSanta Barbara County Fire Department. He has 30 years of experience fighting brush and forest fires, including having been in charge of many such activities over the years.

Comment: Many residents noticed on the afternoon and evening of May 5 that perhaps only four fixed-wing fire suppression drops occurred over the Jesusita Fire, which ignited just before 2 p.m. that day. The response by firefighting officialdom seemed extremely weak. Let me say that I applaud the tireless and courageous efforts of the firefighters, but I believe there is a fundamental failure in the “official” firefighting philosophy employed in Santa Barbara. They did not seek to extinguish the fire!

Response: Simply not true. There is no philosophy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, or any other South Coast fire agency, that is other than the containment and control of the fire as quickly as possible.

Comment: Here’s what I think they are doing wrong and why I think we must remedy not just the increasing length of the fire season. Background: The terrain of Santa Barbara along with the typical weather/wind patterns on the South Coast, plus the extremely combustible nature of our local vegetation, create an explosive and deadly wildfire environment. The exceptionally high cost of real estate here certainly blunts claims that extinguishing fires is not “cost-effective.”

I believe that firefighting authorities have an incorrect conceptualization of the way to fight fires here. They seem to take a “let it burn” attitude except as it directly or immediately threatens structures. They, of course, place highest priority on vigorous direct action when lives are threatened.

Response: The appearance of the so-called “let it burn” attitude stems from the reality that in high winds, such as santa anas, major brush fires are not put out by direct action. Bombarding these fires with fire retardant or water doesn’t extinguish them. It takes personnel on the ground to extinguish the fire. Retardant and water drops are very valuable, but they merely slow the progress of the fire, and take heat out of it, enabling the personnel on the ground to be successful. Direct attack on the ground with hose streams is successful on fires in the early stages, and the fire department’s “philosophy” is to do just that.

Their initial attack is aggressive. Many fires are extinguished by this aggressive initial attack every year. You don’t hear about them because they don’t grow to be a Gap or Tea or a Jesusita. But if they aren’t able to get the fire when it is still small, they must utilize a variety of tactics, including incorporating pre-existing and incident developed fuel breaks, and burning out pockets of vegetation.

And here the weather drives the fire beyond control of any city, county or regional fire department. No jurisdiction could possibly afford the standing army necessary to stop all such fires. Even with the assembly of 4,000 firefighters, as on the Jesusita, it still takes cooperation from Mother Nature. Where such active, weather-driven fire behavior occurs, protecting individual structures is generally possible only when adequate steps have been taken by homeowners, such as clearing brush at least 100 feet from the residence, sealing doors and windows, vents and other openings that might allow embers and hot ash to penetrate into the interior.

Comment: The problem with this “let it burn itself out” attitude is that any wildfires in our South Coast hillside terrain have explosive potential to grow very rapidly. Because of the potential for hot-burning wildfires to create their own wind and weather conditions, the degree of threat should be changed from hazardous to extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.

Response: The firefighters and fire managers view these fires as “extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.” Every year firefighters die fighting these kinds of fires. Three were sent to the burn ward from the Jesusita Fire. When their position was compromised, something that often happens when you’re aggressively attacking a fire, the men moved into a garage as the fire front moved through. Unfortunately, the garage had windows that were not installed to today’s code requirements for wildland-urban interface development. When the fire front hit, the windows failed and the men were burned.

Comment: The much higher cost of real estate here turns a personal tragedy into a major insurance loss and, as we saw last week, a major economic disruption, too. Resolution: For the above reasons, the official approach to fighting wildfires should be changed as follows. No fire on the south slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains or anywhere within the greater Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito or Carpinteria areas should be allowed to burn.

Response: Unfortunately, “allowing” fires to burn is often not a choice. Firefighters “allow” a fire to burn only in situations where it can’t be avoided. Once brush fires start, they tend to take on a life of their own, especially in high winds. And, generally, they can’t be put out by direct assault.

Comment: Any burning fire should be extinguished, completely.

Response: This has been a long-standing policy in firefighting. The problem is that embers can be sneaky. They often lurk below the surface, only to ignite again when the wind picks up. Procedures for completely snuffing embers are well established — and carefully followed by firefighters. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t always know or use recommended methods of extinguishing fires, which appears to have been the case with the recent Tea Fire.

Comment: Firefighting aircraft should be stationed year-round at theSanta Barbara Airport, along with an eight-hour supply of dousing materials with ongoing quick resupply (two hours by truck) backup materials available. This means at least two fixed-wing and several (four-plus) helicopters.

Response: This may be a worthwhile policy; however, it will clearly run up against cost. Just guessing, but specialized helicopters could conceivably cost upwards of $20 million, in addition to the cost of fixed wing airplanes. Four or more firefighting helicopters plus two fixed-wing aircraft could add up to more than $100 million, which is almost twice as much as the entire county fire department budget for the fiscal year.

Considering that Santa Barbara County has not been able to find the money for the North County jail that has been needed for more than 20 years, it seems highly unlikely that this level of funding could be found for fire fighting aircraft. In addition, the cost of keeping six or eight pilots on 24-hour “call” also could increase the personnel budget by another $600,000 to $800,000 a year, or more. Given the fact that the county is operating in the red, it’s hard to see where the money would come from. When it comes to public safety, much as no one likes it, budget considerations often determine the choices that are available.

Comment: Firefighting aircraft should be local government-controlled, even if owned and operated by the federal government.

Response: Perhaps, but getting the federal government to cooperate with a local jurisdiction for such a request is highly unlikely.

Comment: The equipment based here should be part of a year-round training center forNational Guard, state and local aerial firefighting missions.

Response: The question is: Why would the state establish such a training center in Santa Barbara County, as opposed to some other jurisdiction that may also be subject to fires?

Comment: Santa Barbara should be considered a worst-case target area for firefighting training and technology so that it becomes a permanent funding priority for federal, state and local governments.

Response: How about other areas that are also prone to fires, such as Malibu, which has had a number of major fires over the years, some of which have consumed thousands of acres and destroyed many homes? My guess is that the same argument can be made for other locales in California where they have extensive brush covered land and may also be adjacent to a national forest.

Comment: In the urban-suburban high-density population area that is Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria, we cannot allow the existing limited action, “let it burn itself out” philosophy to continue threatening our community.

Response: “Let it burn itself out” is not the philosophy of the fire departments or firefighters. Containment is, for the simple reason that major fires are not put out by attacking them head-on and attempting to snuff them out. Even streams of water from high pressure hoses will not put out a raging fire that is shooting walls of flames 20 to 30 feet into the air.

Comment: While waiting for a fire to burn itself out in an isolated forest may be an acceptable forest “resource management” tool, it is not appropriate for our Santa Barbara locale.

Response: It’s often not even a matter of “waiting” for a fire to “burn itself out.” If you think back to the Sycamore Canyon Fire, the Painted Cave Fire or the more recent Tea fire or the Coyote Fire in the mid 1960s, you may recall that entire sections of the community and surrounding areas were overwhelmed by fast-moving fires that could not be stopped — not by choice, but by circumstance.

Comment: Let’s resolve to fix this problem now!

Response: Until we learn to control the weather, there is probably no “fix” available. We can, however, improve the likelihood of losing fewer homes in a similar fire event. The fire departments “resolved” many years ago to do that.

One of the ways to accomplish that is to build safer new homes, modify existing homes and maintain them according to accepted standards. Future fires would probably create the same-size black spot on the map, but many of the houses need not be lost. Homes are not lost because of a giant conspiracy. They are not lost because of an act of God. They are not lost because of our fire department’s philosophies. They are lost because of physics and chemistry. Homes burn as a result of flying burning embers, direct flame impingement and radiant heat.

Those things can be mitigated in most homes by conventional fire protection measures that are not unreasonably expensive and not aesthetically distracting. But it takes awareness and appreciation of the problem, and attention to details. It also takes a mix of homeowners accepting responsibility and government having the political will to prioritize support for the effort.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years.

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