DOES SAN DIEGO COUNTY NEED A FIRE DEPARTMENT?
DECEMBER 01 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: San Diego County, which for decades has been the only large California county without its own fire department, is rethinking that position in the aftermath of the Cedar Fire.
The county is served by a patchwork of fire agencies run by cities, special districts, volunteers, Indian tribes, and state and federal agencies. Elected officials have repeatedly blocked efforts to set up a county fire agency, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"I'm getting pretty tired, every year, of seeing many, many homes burned down because of the lack of resources," said Andrew Menshek, a battalion chief in East County. "A regionalized department is the way to go."
Under its charter, San Diego County is not required to protect residents from fire. Contrast that with Los Angeles County -- which boasts one of the largest and most well-known county fire departments in the West. There are 57 cities that contract with the L.A. County Fire Department, which staffs 163 engine companies, 31 truck companies, and 79 paramedic units. The LACoFD created the nation's second firefighter paramedic program and the nation's first 911 emergency calling system.
Unlike L.A. County's, fire service in San Diego County has historically been spotty -- but like L.A. County's, it's very politically driven. CDF has provided protection for much of the backcountry, but when the county's wildland/urban interface grew, the price shot up. When urban taxpayers complained about paying for firefighting in remote communities, supervisors reconsidered the CDF contracts -- and in 1974 they withdrew. They encouraged rural residents to join special districts or set up volunteer departments.
"Without any equivocation or any qualifying language of any kind, we are not planning a county fire department," Supervisor Dick Brown said in 1975. "In fact, I am very much opposed to the idea. Urban dwellers do not feel they should pay for their own fire protection plus fire protection in the backcountry."
Now, some elected officials want voters to approve a regional fire department as soon as next year. More than 60 fire agencies -- run by cities, special districts, "county service areas," along with the state, federal government, the military, and Indian tribes -- provide some level of protection in San Diego County. Each department has mutual aid agreements for sharing resources, but a single incident commander can't assign resources regionwide unless state officials assume command, as they did during the Cedar and Paradise fires.
Attorney Barry Newman spent two years in the 1990s on a task force that looked into regionalizing government services. They recommended a single group to manage public services. County supervisors ignored the suggestion. "If there is a fire, the people who are affected by it don't care what patch is on the left arm of the responder," said Newman. "All they want is a firetruck."
Jack Snook is a retired fire chief from Oregon who is an expert in consolidating fire departments. His company has overseen almost 60 mergers and reviewed dozens of others. He sees the same initial resistance in community after community, state after state. "It's turf, power, politics, control, and money," said Snook. "If you can overcome them, then you're usually pretty successful."
Robert Pfohl, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, said he doubts that consolidating fire agencies would cut costs or make operations more efficient. "As organizations get larger, there really is the same number or sometimes even larger numbers of support staff," he said.
The county Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services may put the issue before voters next November.
HISTORY'S BIGGEST WILDFIRE RECOVERY EFFORT
NOVEMBER 26 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: As a safety officer on a wildfire-recovery team, Randy Draeger spends his days making sure workers don't get struck by falling trees, bitten by dogs, or run over by bulldozers. But his biggest challenge is preventing exhaustion. Struggling against shortages of equipment and supplies, his colleagues are in a hurry to stabilize southern California's burned areas before the first big storms of the season.
Southern California Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) projects range from the relocation of endangered species to the straw mulching of hillsides by helicopter. The Christian Science Monitor reported that this is the largest and most complex wildfire recovery effort in American history.
"This is going to take a while," says Erv Gasser, supervisor of a federal BAER team northeast of San Diego. "We're not talking a few days. It's more on the line of a few weeks to months."
The fire-charred hills look like graveyards of gnarled limbs and blackened dirt. "The soils in southern California are very erosive," says Matt Mathes with the U.S. Forest Service. "They fall down the slopes even naturally, and when they get a lot of water on them, they tend to erode very readily in the best of times. With the vegetation burned away, there's nothing to hold the soil."
Teams have been using a number of treatments to ward off erosion and flash floods: fiber rolls (giant flexible tubes of straw or other materials that act as dams behind homes), fiber mats (25 x 8-foot straw mats that hold up hillsides), and "K-rails" (runoff-blocking concrete berms often used to line highways).
For more information on the BAER teams and their activities, check out the baerteam.net website.
WILDFIRE EMPTIES WYOMING TOWN
NOVEMBER 20 -- DAYTON, WY: Hundreds of residents were evacuated overnight when a wind-driven wildfire rushed down a tree-lined river that runs through the town of Dayton. The fire burned about two blocks into the town, according to AP reports, but Dayton Fire Chief Eric Lofgren said no homes were burned. The 1,500-acre fire started about 8 p.m. yesterday just west of Dayton, and was pushed into town by winds of 50 to 60 mph. Firefighters evacuated the west side of Dayton and the rest of the town was under a voluntary evacuation order. The fire was contained about 3 a.m. and snow was falling by morning.
CALIFORNIA FIRE LOSSES OVER $2 BILLION
NOVEMBER 19 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: Early estimates of $2 billion in property damage have been verified by industry sources, according to a North County Times report; the Cedar Fire in San Diego County and the Old Fire near San Bernardino together accounted for at least 3,300 burned structures. The figures don't include all of the fire damage in San Diego County, nor are fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties included in the estimate.
Some sources said the figure could run $2.5 billion to as much as $3 billion in insured losses; Robert Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, also has pegged the insured losses for the two fires at $2.04 billion, and has said the number could rise to $2.3 billion. Nearly 13,000 claims for damage have been filed, and the policies represent a total coverage limit of just under $3.5 billion.
Other disasters in California have cost more. The insured loss for the Northridge earthquake in 1994 exceeded $12 billion, six times the estimate for the Cedar and Old fires. As California fires go, the champion for damage remains the blaze that engulfed San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Total damage estimates for the San Francisco fire approach $6 billion after adjusting for a century of inflation, but most of that loss was uninsured.
RUIDOSO: THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT HERE
NOVEMBER 17 -- RUIDOSO, NM: Surrounded by the forested slopes of the Lincoln National Forest, residents of this vacation town in New Mexico are well aware of the dangers of wildfire. Three large fires burned here in the last few years; one destroyed more than two dozen homes. And those fires, says Ruidoso's full-time forester, Rick DeIaco, "really piqued everybody's interest."
USA Today reported that Ruidoso's fire safety measures make the mountain town a leader in addressing the wildfire threat. The town has a mandate that homeowners must thin trees and brush from around their properties, creating more defensible space around homes.
Ruidoso's forceful approach is likely to become more common across the West; the state of Oregon has a statewide program that makes property owners liable in the county-designated interface areas, should a wildfire begin on or burn across their property, if they've not done appropriate clearing of their property. Other similar measures are under discussion in several other Western states.
Homeowners and builders are increasingly being told to protect themselves. Building codes are being changed to require more fire-resistant construction materials, and insurance companies are encouraging policyholders to make homes safer or risk losing coverage.
But few communities have taken as comprehensive an approach as Ruidoso. Two years ago the U.S. Forest Service designated the town as the second-most-vulnerable community in the nation, based on forest density and the mingling of homes and wildland. The village has focused on public education and warning systems; emergency evacuation routes are well marked with signs, and a "reverse 911" telephone warning system can automatically notify hundreds of residents in just minutes. New construction must adhere to a code requiring good access for fire equipment, adequate water for firefighting, and fire-resistant building materials.
Most important, Ruidoso crafted a comprehensive plan to thin forests on its outskirts and on private land within town.
Joe Renteria, 75, a retired aircraft mechanic, is one homeowner who didn't need much encouragement to do the necessary clearing. He took advantage of a cost-share program through the National Fire Plan, and removed about 75 trees from his one-acre property. He paid only a third of the total cost.
And the insurance industry is pushing compliance; hundreds of homeowners with MetLife have been notified that they should meet Ruidoso's requirements; State Farm has a similar effort under way. "It's definitely the trend in the industry," said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. "They are getting more aggressive about what homeowners need to do to keep their insurance."
THE REHAB "DREAM TEAM"
NOVEMBER 16 -- COLTON, CA:
Every fire season, teams of emergency rehab specialists are assembled to set up Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER, operations in communities where federal lands have been burned by wildfire. BAER teams took on the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire at Los Alamos, and they've been to southern California before. But this year is like no other, according to a special report by the North County Times.
And this assignment may be the most challenging ever.
"With the sheer number of acres burned, rehabilitation on these fires will be the first of its kind in many ways," said Matt Mathes, BAER information officer. "The skill and scale of the effort are unprecedented."
"Our goal is to not leave any piece of federal land left out," said Cathleen Thompson, BAER information officer for the region. The two teams -- one in the San Bernardino area and one out of San Diego -- include hydrologists, soil scientists, engineers, biologists, silviculturists, range conservationists, archaeologists and other land-use professionals.
"What the teams do is truly remarkable," said David Widmark, another information officer. "The specialists have to look at satellite photos and go out into the field to survey all of the ground destruction. Several hundred thousand acres of land need assessment, so it's a lot of hard work." The teams map the intensity of the burn (see severity maps online) and share information, specialists, and experts -- including local professionals whenever possible. "They know the ground," said Thompson, "and they know which treatments work and don't in that special area."
She said one of the team's priorities is to identify areas in the greatest danger from erosion and flood. Once the assessment report is completed, the implementation process begins. "The treatment team will shadow this assessment group," explained Widmark, "and when it leaves early next week, they take over with implementation."
A concerted effort to protect people and property against flooding and mudslides is already under way. Barriers have been installed on many of the steepest slopes, but experts are well aware that sandbags, hay bales, silt fences, and detention basins are not permanent measures. The San Diego County Department of Public Works is providing free soil erosion-control devices, including sandbags, at its road stations. Erosion experts say that silt fences and straw bales are the most effective when placed so they follow the contours of the slope. Other BAER team projects will include monitoring water supplies and using straw mulch to reduce erosion and promote vegetative recovery. The team will make recommendations on a case-to-case basis for decisions on whether re-seeding is used. In southern California, it may actually hinder the recovery of native plant species and the revegetation of slopes prone to erosion.
More information on the BAER efforts is available at www.baerteam.net
SAN DIEGO FLOODING FIXES IN THE WORKS
NOVEMBER 15 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: Erosion control experts from local, state, and federal government agencies, along with a host of volunteer workers, are preparing for mudslides and flooding after the fires. The potential for heavier-than-usual runoff from rocky slopes has had dozens of specialists out in the burned areas figuring how to keep what's left from washing away. The Cedar and Paradise Fires stripped many slopes of vegetation, and twice as much storm water than normal could end up flowing down hillsides.
Creeks, storm drains, and drainage ditches that don't usually get much water could flood, according to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, but the National Weather Service is predicting an average winter. Ne ar-normal temperatures and rainfall are expected, with between 9½ and 16½ inches for the valleys and 20½ to 40 inches for the mountains.
Much of the focus of BAER activities has been determining what can, and should, be done. Some fixes are already in the works; the BAER team is drafting a rehab plan for the burned areas, and they expect to put it into action this week. The County of San Diego and City of San Diego have hired GeoSyntec, an engineering consulting firm, to determine how to shore up stream banks, clear burned vegetation from slopes, remove debris from drainage channels, and keep silt and ash from entering drinking-water reservoirs.
"Our big message is that folks need to be prepared for rain," said Pennie Custer on the BAER team, "and what might happen with those rains if they're flowing into the wrong areas. The big problem is going to be that water runoff."
For more information, burn severity maps, and links to local area agencies, check the BAER team website at baerteam.net
CEDAR FIRE: ONCE-IN-A-CAREER BLAZE
NOVEMBER 15 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The system to alert people of an approaching wildfire, in the case of the Cedar Fire, didn't necessarily fail -- but it was overwhelmed. The Cedar Fire moved too fast, and came at the worst possible time -- in the early morning -- and surged through hard-to-reach rural communities. Fire departments were understaffed with resources already dispatched to other areas and other fires. And standard operating procedure, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, is now under scrutiny.
Some people said they never got word that a fire was minutes away. They said they received inaccurate information from emergency dispatchers. Residents in the Lakeside area, if they heard any warning at all, had only minutes to get out. And 12 of the 16 people killed in the state's worst fire died in this area.
Under normal circumstances, when a wildfire threatens communities, fire officials contact the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which handles evacuations. But on the Cedar Fire, deputies started telling people to get out without any direction from the California Department of Forestry.
"It was like a blowtorch," said Chris Saunders with the Sheriff's Department. "We didn't wait for CDF to tell us where to evacuate. We acted on our own when it looked like the fire was going to threaten any given area."
Another problem was that the fire didn't really display its potential for hours. It started at 5:30 p.m. on the Cleveland National Forest, but didn't really start to rock'n'roll till near midnight. "We had no intelligence other than what we could see," said Andy Parr, division chief for the Lakeside Fire Protection District. He said the fire was a "once-in-a-career fire;" it blew across the Barona Indian Reservation in 40 minutes flat. "No one expected something like that," said Parr.
Some residents in Lakeside are taking matters into their own hands, looking at measures to protect their homes and families, including forming a community-response team.
THE RACE AGAINST MUDSLIDES
NOVEMBER 13 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The first real rain in 193 days soaked fire-scorched San Diego County yesterday, and road crews, rehab experts, and residents were racing to get ahead in the region's next big fight -- erosion -- and the mudslides and rockslides that could play havoc with property and roads this winter. The North County Times reported that road crews were out clearing drainage culverts, while California Conservation Corps volunteers laid sandbags, straw rolls, and straw blankets on soaked hillsides.
"We're working seven days a week," county equipment operator Mike Sporl said. He and his crew used a backhoe and dump truck to remove more than a ton of silt and soil from around a drainage culvert in Valley Center. "We're cleaning out all the culverts ... trying to get ahead of the next storm that's in the system," he added. "We had flooding this morning with just this little bit of rain. We're definitely going to have a lot of mud all over, especially in these burn areas."
The county Department of Public Works has been handing out free sand bags and gravel bags at its road stations. Since last week, they have issued 22,463 sandbags, 4,267 gravel bags, 1,291 straw rolls, 444 straw blankets, and more than a ton of native flower seed.
Though San Diego County has seen several years of average or below-average rainfall, county workers are taking mudslides and road closures very seriously. "There's nothing to hold the water back now," said Sporl. "We're probably going to have flash flooding just about everywhere the fires were located."
FIRE NEAR FORT COLLINS EVACUATES 63 HOMES
NOVEMBER 12 -- MASONVILLE, CO: Winds picked up again this morning in Colorado, worrying crews fighting a wildfire that's burned 125 acres west of Fort Collins and forced the evacuation of 63 homes. The fire started Tuesday and burned grass and brush; at least 10 homes were threatened. The fire settled down overnight and was about 10 percent contained, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, but the Larimer County Sheriff said winds were picking up again.
The fire was believed to be human-caused. Authorities were looking for a silver sports utility vehicle to question its driver and passengers about the fire, said Debbie Wilson, fire information officer with the Forest Service.
ALLSTATE CREATES WILDFIRE RELIEF FUND
NOVEMBER 10 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The Allstate Foundation and the California Community Foundation (CCF) have established a $1 million fund to help with recovery and rebuilding efforts in southern California. Donations from the Allstate Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund will be disbursed to applicant grassroots 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with programs to aid rebuilding and recovery efforts in the counties of San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Ventura. The San Diego Foundation will help administer grants to San Diego-area organizations.
Donations from the fund are earmarked for fire-relief needs including emergency shelter, food and clothing, mental health recovery efforts, community clean-up, restoring community emergency services, and assistance with home re-construction permits.
Thomas Wilson, president of Allstate Protection, said the foundation is taking a stand to deliver critical funding to southern California residents when they need it most.
CCF also managed catastrophe response funds after the 1993 Los Angeles-area wildfires and the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
"The devastation and personal loss caused by these wildfires is at an unprecedented level here in southern California," said Jack Shakely, CCF president. "It's critical that we help people and communities to accelerate the all-important recovery period." He said the fund is designed to reach people and communities that were missed by the initial wave of disaster relief services. More information's available on the www.calfund.org website.
RESIDENTS WARNED ABOUT FLOODING
NOVEMBER 09 -- SUMMIT VALLEY, CA: As the residents who were evacuated from the area of the Old Fire return to their homes and resume their lives, federal and county officials are warning about the possibility of mudslides and flooding.
The most threatened areas are on the south side of the mountain, and through Devore and the Cajon Pass. Areas such as Summit Valley, Deep Creek, and Silverwood Lake, which are below burned mountain slopes, could also be affected, according to a report by the Victorville Daily Press.
"I don't think we've ever had to deal with it on this magnitude," said Pat Mead, assistant director of the San Bernardino County Public Works Department. "The houses against the steeper slopes that have burned, they're going to be at risk."
Federal, state and county officials working with the Southern California BAER Team are surveying fire-damaged areas to determine ways to reduce the risk brought on by winter rains. The team is expected to present a report on the potential mudslide and flooding problems sometime this week.
Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) interagency teams are deployed to eliminate emergency conditions that lead to soil erosion and flash floods. Team members are cleaning out basins and culverts, performing ground and aerial mulching, and constructing water diversion treatments.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are also warning residents to prepare for mudslides and flooding, said FEMA's Gene Romano. Residents in burn areas can call (800)427-4661 to ask about FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. People can also call their city or county public works departments to find out whether their area is threatened. Assessment maps will soon be available from the BAER team website at baerteam.net and the San Bernardino County Public Works/Flood Control Department is at (909)387-7914. Information is also available on their website at www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us and other area contacts are also online.
AMERICAN FORESTS GROUP FUNDS REHAB
NOVEMBER 07 -- WASHINGTON, DC: The AMERICAN FORESTS conservation organization announced yesterday a new national fund to help communities and organizations restore forests damaged by recent wildfires in California. Ecological recovery is expected to take years, the group's goal is to plant a million trees in the state.
"Restoring fire-damaged forests prevents erosion from hillsides and protects waterways that provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife," said Deborah Gangloff, executive director.
The Wildfire ReLeaf program depends on donations to help plant native trees in burned areas that might otherwise take years to regenerate. The fund was designated specifically for California forests after an outpouring of questions and requests from California residents and people across the United States. More information is available online at www.americanforests.org or from Wildfire ReLeaf—California, c/o AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013 or by calling (800)545-TREE.
PRESIDENT VISITS FIREFIGHTERS
NOVEMBER 06 -- EL CAJON, CA: Firefighters contained the largest of southern California's wildfires this week, and then turned their efforts to mopping up what's left.
President Bush, who surveyed some of the damage on Tuesday, "hopped on the bed of a California Department of Forestry pickup," according to AP reports, and thanked several hundred firefighters. "We've seen the worst of nature," he said, "but when you go to these communities and when you realize what's taken place, you see the absolute best of mankind."
The Fresno Bee quoted Bonita Fire Capt. Mike Kobliska, who spent 11 days on the fires. He said Bush's speech made him feel better. "Not that we needed a pat on the back, but to say it doesn't feel good would be a lie."
Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams will begin reseeding, digging flood-control trenches, surveying for critical flood risk areas, and working with NOAA personnel and other agencies to coordinate an all-risk response to the aftermath of the fires and the next few weeks of fall rainstorms.
Nearly 7,000 firefighters were still on the lines this week, but dozens of BAER team specialists have converged on the southern California area even as thousands of firefighters are demobilized from the area and sent back home.
FIRST FIRES, NOW MUDSLIDES
NOVEMBER 05 -- CRESTLINE, CA: As fire crews and overhead teams shift from firefighting to mop-up, officials and emergency response experts are scrambling to face another looming disaster in the smoldering hills: mudslides. The pressure's on -- denuded slopes must be stabilized before they're washed away by winter rains, sending what could be devastating floods and mudslides into communities built on what were once barren alluvial plains.
Forest Service employees say it could be the largest effort in history to rehabilitate fire-burned land. The Desert Sun reported that weather is so volatile this time of year that officials may have just a couple more days before the first storm of the year.
In the aftermath of the fires, an interagency team of national emergency rehab specialists has converged on the area and set up operations to take on the safety hazards and threats caused by the fires. Several teams -- of 20 or more specialists from several states and a number of agencies -- will spend the next few weeks assessing and eliminating threats to the people and the land affected by the fires.
The Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program deals with these risks immediately after a fire. Teams of botanists, biologists, engineers, archaeologists, and other watershed specialists moved in right behind the fire crews. They're assessing the damage and trying to predict -- and if possible, prevent -- mudslides. A mudslide blanketed Highway 18 near Crestline over the weekend, slowing emergency crews racing to fires in the San Bernardino Mountains and the return of residents to burned-out areas near Lake Arrowhead.
"This is by far unprecedented as far as the complexity and the number of folks and the amount of acreage," said coordinator Rob Griffith, who expects to allocate tens of millions of dollars to the Southern California response.
Federal, state and local teams have been assigned to four units -- the San Bernardino area, the San Diego area, the Ventura County area, and the Los Angeles County area.
"Because it's such a big fire and we have such a short window, we're trying to hit the highest of priorities first, and then work our way down the list," said Todd Ellsworth, who heads the BAER teams assigned to the Old and Grand Prix fires. "Everything's important. It's just that some things are more critically important, and we're running out of time."
More information, along with updates and information on how you can volunteer, is available on the team's website at www.fs.fed.us/baer and the Joint Information Center at www.esri.com/jicfire on the San Bernardino.
THIS PLACE CALLED SOUTH OPS
NOVEMBER 04 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Simultaneously fighting 10 wildland fires -- ordering and moving all the personnel and engines and other equipment and aircraft and other resources -- can be a zoo. And with dozens of agencies -- local, state, and federal -- representing a mix of jurisdictions across southern California, it can be hectic. This is the place they call "South Ops," or Southern Operations, a walled compound in San Bernardino where key decisions are made on deploying firefighters, evacuating people, setting priorities, and saving lives.
One of eleven Geographic Area Coordination Centers across the country, South Ops is one of the biggest and most complex, and is sometimes the busiest. The GACC in the Northeast U.S. manages fire and other incidents in more than 20 states. The one in Atlanta, covering the South, manages an area stretching from the middle of Texas clear to Florida and halfway up the Eastern Coast. California's incident management is so busy and so complex that the state is divided into two separate areas -- South Ops in San Bernardino (formerly Riverside) and North Ops up in Redding.
And as the Sacramento Bee recently reported, it brings coherence to a system that could easily turn into anarchy. While turf battles and minor spitfights are still common, it's a lot better than it was in 1961. That year, a firestorm swept through Bel Air and Brentwood and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The chaos that year showed that fire agencies were working at cross purposes.
"During the Bel Air fires, everyone suddenly learned that they had different radio frequencies, different terminology, different equipment," said Ron Raley, a veteran fire commander who works for the U.S. Forest Service. Fire crews from different agencies, for example, found they couldn't connect their hoses onto another agency's engines.
As a result of what was learned after the Bel Air fires -- and the Laguna Fire of 1970 -- California's fire agencies developed and set up the Incident Command System. And ICS has since then been emulated by other emergency responders nationwide -- even the military.
After the World Trade Center disaster in 2001, New York City's fire department sent personnel West to "shadow" some of the incident management teams who handle fire. FDNY had had some of its personnel trained in ICS, but those who were were killed in the tower collapse. National teams who handle fire were sent back to New York to help, but things didn't run like usual on an incident. Without ICS in place, chaos threatened to take over.
Under ICS, agencies divide up responsibility for responding to multiple fires. The state fire agency, CDF, takes the lead on fires on mostly private property. The Forest Service handles national forests, and county fire agencies often lead strike teams that work within their jurisdictions.
And it isn't just the fire agencies in the system. Fighting a major conflagration involves evacuations, handling traffic, managing powerlines and utilities, and a score of other things that can make a wildfire into madness. Under the ICS umbrella are the California Highway Patrol, the state Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Weather Service, and many other agencies.
The incident commander on a fire -- or other incidents such as hurricanes or earthquakes -- runs the show on the fire, directing crews and engines and aircraft. The IC confers with South Ops, and they supply reconnaissance reports, such as infrared aerial photography, along with more resources needed by the IC and the team.
Though resource orders are occasionally muffed, things usually run pretty smoothly -- the system's generally staffed by serious professionals with long careers in fire and extensive training. But the system can be interfered with, as evidenced by recent blame-slinging and finger-pointing when fires don't get managed the way politicians or Monday-morning quarterbacks think they should.
"We have to deal with a lot of political crap," said Ray Quintanar, Forest Service Fire & Aviation director for the Pacific Southwest region. "That is part of the job."
Part of the job is also the planning, the organization, the preparedness that goes into the overall year-round management of fires in a state that's infamous for the complexity of its fire season.
"We feel that our pre-planning saved hundreds and hundreds of homes," said Judith Downing at the San Bernardino Joint Information Center.
The mood now at South Ops -- and the pace -- are far more relaxed than the situation just a week or three ago. The cooler wet weather has helped. The legions of firefighters, the incident management teams, and thousands of volunteers have all helped. And the system itself helped.
EXTENT OF CALIFORNIA FIRES STUNS OREGON FMO
NOVEMBER 01 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: The scale of the fires across southern California is almost too much for Dale Gardner to grasp. Fire management officer on Oregons's Willamette National Forest, Gardner is on temporary assignment with the San Bernardino National Forest and says the first thing that hit him was the sheer size of the inferno.
"I've been on fires in California before and seen structure loss, but the magnitude of this whole deal in southern California right now is something else," he told the Register-Guard. "It's a pretty overwhelming deal."
Residents have been allowed back into the evacuated Lake Arrowhead area, where the 59,358-acre Grand Prix Fire wiped out 100 structures. "That's a tough thing to go through," said Gardner. "You see all kinds of emotions people go through when that's occurring."
He said in some areas 50 to 60 percent of the trees are dead from insect infestations, and the vegetation's drought-stressed. "A lot of this vegetation is green, but it's so close to dead it's not funny," he said. "It's so moisture-stressed that when you lower the humidity and put the wind to it, it's going to burn."
"The state of California is primed for these kind of things, and when they mobilize, they do it in a big way," he said. "There's some gutsy, courageous firefighting going on here."
One Novato firefighter was killed and another severely injured on the Cedar Fire last week.
Firefighter Steve Rucker and three crewmembers were trying Wednesday to save a home near Wynola, outside of Julian, when the flames turned on them. Rucker, an 11-year veteran of the Novato Fire Protection District, and the other three were overrun. One of the three surviving crewmembers, Capt. Doug McDonald, remained in critical condition with second-degree burns. The other two, Shawn Kreps and Barrett Smith, were released after treatment for minor burns. Rucker was the fire's 20th victim.
Accounts have been set up at Bank of Marin to benefit the families of both Rucker and McDonald. Rucker left behind a wife and two children; McDonald, a 17-year firefighting veteran, has a wife and two children.
Contributions can be made to the Doug McDonald Fund or the Steve Rucker Family Fund, established at the request of the Novato Fire Department, at the Bank of Marin, 1450 Grant Avenue, Novato, CA 94945. More information is available online from bankofmarin.com or by calling (415)899-7338.
Donations can also be made to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation at wffoundation.org or by calling (208)336-2996.
UTILITY WORKERS CONVERGE
ON SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
OCTOBER 31 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: More than 1,000 utility workers from out of the area have been called in to restore power and damaged utility lines across the fire-blackened areas of southern California.
"I can probably see 20 miles, and it's black as far as I can see," said Scott Hicks, a Redding-based utility foreman. "It's a mess down here."
Earlier this week, firefighters throughout California were dispatched by the thousands to fight fires in the south. Now it's utility crews that are needed -- to rebuild thousands of charred power poles.
The Redding Record-Searchlight reported that Hicks and his Western Area Power Administration crew got the call Wednesday afternoon. They drove 15 hours to San Diego and joined an army of utility workers from all over the state and Arizona. And they've had a warm reception.
"They're treating us like kings down here," said Hicks.
About 22,000 customers remain without power near San Diego. Power has already been restored to nearly 83,000 customers. Crews are restringing 5 million feet of wire and repairing 17 burned-out transmission facilities.
"FIRE IS A PRICE YOU PAY"
NOVEMBER 01 -- DENVER, CO: The wildfire that destroyed a dozen homes near Boulder this week burned through stands of pine and fir not far from where the Forest Service wants to thin dangerously thick brush and trees. One fuels reduction project was postponed last week because fire managers said it could have started a huge wildfire, while the other is awaiting final approval.
Forest officials said the Overland Fire damage could swing public sentiment in favor of fuels projects. "I'm sure it'll serve as a wake-up call to a lot of people," said Colorado State Forest Service forester Wendy McCartney.
An AP report in the Casper Star-Tribune noted that in a five-state region including Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service plans to treat areas stretching across 500,000 acres over the next 10 years. Officials plan to thin 3,000 acres of the James Creek watershed around Jamestown, an area that hasn't been treated for at least 20 years.
Sugarloaf resident Marcia Barber said some residents worry a prescribed burn could get out of control. And the nearby wildfires have not changed her mind: "Fire is a price you pay for living in the mountains," she said.
Firefighters in Jamestown said they ran into thick vegetation and houses where little work to clear fuels had been done. Eric Abramson said he ran through grass two feet tall and thick stands of trees. "It's really scary," he said.
WET WEATHER HELPS FIREFIGHTERS
OCTOBER 31 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: Cooler temperatures, fog, and light rain are helping exhausted firefighters in the San Bernardino mountains, but the fires across southern California still remain a threat to thousands of homes and residents. Temperatures dipped to about 60º in the mountain communities overnight, and the weather has remained cool today, and it even snowed this morning at Strawberry Peak.
The L.A. Times reported that many of the fires are winding down, but risks of landslides and localized flooding have now increased.
The Old Fire, which is being managed by three Type 1 teams and a Type 2 team, is 25 percent contained at 95,395 acres. The 59,358-acre Grand Prix Fire is 85 percent contained, and the Padua Fire, at 10,446 acres, is 95 percent contained. The Paradise Fire, at 56,700 acres, has expanded to the east, but crews have kept it from jumping Highway 76 to Lake Henshaw. It was 30 percent contained last night. The 275,833-acre Cedar Fire, the deadliest of the 10 wildfires, is now 65 percent contained. The Simi Fire, at 107,240 acres, is at 60 percent containment.
Twenty-two people have been killed, and at least 2,612 homes have burned, with losses estimated at more than $2 billion. CDF is calling this the worst wildfire season in the state since recordkeeping began in the early 20th century.
"We are nowhere near out of the fire season yet," said CDF's Karen Terrill.
California's new Governor Arnold yesterday did a helicopter tour of the San Bernardino National Forest, and he told people in fire camp that he was impressed with the firefighting coordination. "They knew this was going to happen if the forest was not cleaned up," he said. "If not for that, many more families would not have their homes."
He earned a roar of applause from about 1,000 firefighters in camp when he congratulated them on their efforts. "I play heroes in the movies," he said. "These firefighters are the true heroes."
CALIFORNIA OFFICIALS SAY
BUSH IGNORED FIRE DANGER
OCTOBER 31 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: Ousted California Gov. Gray Davis and state legislators are accusing the Bush administration of ignoring urgent pleas made months ago for emergency funding to clear beetle-killed trees that experts warned could fuel a catastrophic southern California fire. In April, Davis requested $430 million to reduce fuels on 415,000 acres of forest, but the request for emergency funds went unanswered until last week -- and then was denied.
"There was a reason the governor requested the declaration," said Davis staffer Steve Maviglio. "And I'm sure there are a lot of families without homes that are disappointed it wasn't approved."
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Sen. Barbara Boxer yesterday complained that President Bush had failed to act on the state's request for help and that now Californians were suffering. "We named three of the four counties that are up in smoke, and we begged him to declare a disaster, we begged him," she said. "We saw this coming a mile away."
FEMA officials said they rejected the emergency request because it was clear that the Forest Service was working on the problem and diverting money from other programs to tackle it. "It's somewhat disingenuous to suggest there was no federal assistance, because in fact there was," said Chad Kolton, spokesman for FEMA.
The Davis administration in April wrote to Bush and warned that the bark beetle infestation was risking severe fires in three counties: Riverside, San Diego, and San Bernardino. Davis said that 75,000 residents of mountain communities were threatened. He requested $300 million from the Forest Service and $130 million from a FEMA account of unused money set aside from previous disasters.
On the current southern California fires, suppression costs alone -- not counting the value of lost lives, burned homes, property damage, resource damage, and rehab costs -- now total over $42 million. Property losses are estimated at over $2 billion.
CALIFORNIA FIRES BURNING WHERE
PREVENTION FUNDING LAGGED
OCTOBER 31 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: Most of the wildfires in southern California are burning primarily in chaparral, the brushlands that don't get the attention -- of either the media or fire funding -- that the timbered forests of the West receive. But it's fire in California's brushy, volatile, commercially worthless, and ubiquitous chaparral that often exacts the most devastating toll.
Some of the fires have burned up into the forested high country of the San Bernardinos, but according to the L.A. Times much of what has burned is scrubland that eats up enormous sums of firefighting money but gets comparatively little prevention funding.
Cut the chaparral back, and it quickly regrows. Try prescribed fire, and homeowners and state air-quality officials resist. And even when things go well, the chaparral is still tough to burn.
"I've been in a lot of prescribed burns in southern California," said Robin Wills, a regional fire ecologist with the National Park Service. "Most of the time, we aren't successful. You cannot get the shrubs to burn, no matter what you do. They have adapted to burn only under the most extreme conditions. And we are generally uncomfortable with those conditions."
And then there's the funding problem.
"We see the vast majority of Forest Service resources in this state go to northern California forests, where trees exist," said Tim Allyn, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club. "Southern California forests get far fewer funds even though our forests receive far more visits."
Of the $53 million for hazardous fuel reduction distributed to California's national forests in 2003, less than $4 million went to the Cleveland, Angeles, San Bernardino, and Los Padres national forests. And it's not just federal fire agencies. CDF's goal is to clear brush and do prescribed burns on 150,000 acres annually statewide. But they actually do only 30,000 acres a year.
Fuels reduction funds are often diverted to firefighting. On the Los Padres, fire management officer Patrick Pontes said his staff can afford to do prescribed burns on only a third to a half of the acreage that they could do if they had more funding.
"We have only been able to treat 3,000 to 5,000 acres a year," Pontes said. "We feel we could easily burn up to 10,000 to 15,000 acres a year."
Mark Rey, the USDA undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, says the President's Healthy Forests Initiative will accelerate fuels reduction projects. "Both the Senate compromise and the House bill will provide us tools that will be a help in chaparral as well as forest systems," said Rey. "Neither bill focuses to the exclusion of the other. When we do treatment in chaparral systems, we are often confronted by the same procedural impediments as elsewhere."
TWO FIRESTORMS ... 50 YEARS ... ENDURING LESSONS
OCTOBER 31 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: The loss of 15 firefighters on the fatal Rattlesnake Fire, on July 9, 1953, stands unmatched half a century later, at a time when the fires of southern California are setting their own mark. The two conflagrations, separated by 50 years, have several links, according to an op-ed piece by John Maclean in the Los Angeles Times. The Rattlesnake Fire sparked a nationwide program to deliberately burn fuels and reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire. The program was severely curtailed after a series of environmental challenges beginning in the 1970s. The Rattlesnake Fire also helped inspire rules for safety that remain in force today and have saved firefighters' lives.
"Sadly, it usually takes a catastrophe to teach enduring lessons," writes Maclean. "In southern California, the lessons will not emerge until the fires are out, but after that it is likely there will be increased efforts to make housing more resistant to fire and there will be calls for increased, deliberate burning to clear brush."
Maclean notes that after the Rattlesnake Fire, the Forest Service put together a task force to study firefighter fatalities and report on what could be done to prevent them. They produced, in 1957, the Fire Task Forece Report to the Chief, which was the origin of the Ten Standard Fire Orders. The number of multiple-fatality fires dropped dramatically after 1957. Only the 1966 Loop Fire on California's Angeles National Forest had double-digit losses until Colorado's 1994 South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters.
In the wake of the South Canyon Fire, safety became an obsession in the fire world," says Maclean. "Fire crews began refusing orders they considered too dangerous. But fire remains a brutal teacher. The loss of one firefighter and 19 civilians in southern California underscores the truth that fire ultimately eludes human control. The effects of fatal fires linger like heavy smoke for those who knew and loved those who fell. Hope lies in sifting the ashes to learn a lesson, no matter how imperfectly."
John Maclean is the author of FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire and FIRE AND ASHES: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire.
CALIFORNIA HOMEOWNERS WILL PAY FOR FIRE PROTECTION NEXT YEAR
OCTOBER 31 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: The California Department of Forestry, now battling a southern California firestorm, has mostly avoided funding cuts during the state's budget crisis, but next year nearly 2 million California property owners will pay a new fee to help pay for fire protection.
It will be the first time that CDF has added a charge for its firefighting services. The agency employs 2,700 full-time firefighters, and the Legislature cut $50 million from the department's $600 million budget this year. But they'll make up the cut, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, by sending a bill to 1.8 million residents who live in rural areas of California.
Residents will pay $70 along with their next property tax bills for each piece of property they own in "state responsibility areas;" the fee will be $35 per year after that.
"We haven't had serious, devastating budget cuts," said Karen Terrill with CDF. "But we've never had to implement a fee like this."
Each county in California would be required to increase the fee to cover their cost of the state-mandated fee collection process. Critics of the new fee say that all Californians benefit from CDF's fire protection services, not just property owners in the state responsibility areas, and the new law will assess the same fire-protection fee regardless of the size of the property. The text of the bill is online at wildfirenews.com/sb1049.
FOREST SERVICE RETIREES SLAM FSEEE
FOR FRIVOLOUS LAWSUIT
OCTOBER 30 -- ALEXANDRIA, VA: The national organization of U.S. Forest Service retirees says it's alarmed about the "total lack of responsibility" demonstrated by what it calls a frivolous lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed by the so-called "Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics" (FSEEE), wants the fire agency's use of retardant stopped until an Environmental Impact Statement has been completed. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula; it challenges the Forest Service's firefighting program, including the use of aerial retardant. The group also wants the Forest Service to consult with regulatory agencies on the Endangered Species Act about the effects of retardant on endangered species.
The National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR) points to the current firestorm in southern California and the retardant drops that they say are saving lives and millions of dollars of property loss.
"It is so outrageous, it boggles my mind," said Richard Pfilf, NAFSR executive director. "FSEEE mischievously contrived this lawsuit as a way to interfere with and subvert proven, effective methods of fighting forest fires."
"Retirees wonder how anyone can be so irresponsible as to demand stopping the use of retardant to prepare an EIS when Santa Ana winds are now pushing an inferno through southern California communities," says the group. "NAFSR believes the legal action by FSEEE to be morally repugnant, threatening lives and property by interfering with the operation of firefighting agencies across the country."
CALIFORNIA FIRES BOOST FEDERAL FIRE FUNDING
OCTOBER 30 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Congress yesterday approved record levels of federal spending for firefighting, and California's Governor Arnold was on Capitol Hill asking for help.
"The huge disastrous fires have changed my mission a little bit," said Schwarzenegger. "I'm now looking for federal money for the people, the victims of the fires."
The House was set to vote on an Interior Department spending bill that contains $2.9 billion for wildfire suppression, forest restoration, and fuels reduction. According to an AP story in the Coos Bay World, $400 million of that will repay the Forest Service and BLM for funds borrowed for fire suppression this summer. The money, part of a $20.2 billion spending bill, includes $800 million for wildfire suppression, up $289 million from the current budget year, and $937 million for wildfire preparedness, slightly above current levels.
Congress recently approved $300 million in emergency spending for this year, bringing total federal funds for firefighting to $3.2 billion.
With southern California fires currently burning across nearly 1,000 square miles, lawmakers said even more was needed. Rep. Jerry Lewis of California proposed adding $500 million to the $87 billion Iraq reconstruction bill -- to help FEMA deal with the fires in California.
FIRESTORMS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
OCTOBER 30 -- LAKE ARROWHEAD, CA: Firefighters are struggling to save emptied-out resort towns in the San Bernardino Mountains, with 200-foot walls of fire washing over stands of drought-ravaged bug-killed trees, stoked by Santa Ana winds from the desert to the east. Those winds eased some yesterday, but according to an AP report in the Register-Guard, they then gave way to stiff breezes off the ocean. Those winds drove the fires up canyon walls around evacuated mountain communities such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear -- a couple of southern California's most popular mountain resort areas.
Crews had planned to set backfires along a highway to protect the town of Running Springs, but couldn't do it. The fires swept over ridges and forced evacuations in parts of Hesperia.
"There's fire on so many fronts, it's not even manageable at this point," said Chris Cade, a Forest Service fire prevention technician.
The California fires have burned more than 660,000 acres and destroyed 2,600 homes. More than 12,000 firefighters are at work on what is probably the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
Yesterday about two dozen engines and water tenders on their way to Julian were forced to turn back when flames swept over the highway. And as the winds picked up, floating embers ignited more spot fires, forcing crews to retreat. About 90 percent of the homes in Cuyamaca were destroyed. "Everything's kind of happening all at once," said Bill Bourbeau, safety officer on the Cleveland National Forest. "These fires are trying really hard to tie in with each other. It's tremendous."
A hotshot crew outside Julian was given an ominous warning from their supervisor: If they came across any human remains, they were to cordon off the area until a medical examiner could get in. "If we find somebody in the brush who took off running or whatever," said Capt. Fred Brewster. "Who knows what you're going to find up there? It's a giant mess."
Heavy winds kept aircraft grounded in the San Bernardino area, and winds gusting to 60 mph pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest. "They turned around with the wind and the fuel and basically overran us," said San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Mike Conrad.
Some 80,000 full-time residents of the San Bernardinos have cleared out since the weekend, thousands of them trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a narrow highway.
Others defied the warnings of firefighters and decided to stay to protect their homes.
"I'm afraid, but I've got a lot of faith," said Chrisann Maurer as she watered down her yard and home. "I just think there is enough people praying that we might be safe."
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA'S WHITMORE FIRE NEARS CONTAINMENT
OCTOBER 30 -- REDDING, CA: The smoke trail that two days ago drifted across much of northern California has dispersed, but residents around Whitmore are keeping their cars packed just in case. The 1,004-acre fire is 80 percent contained.
"We feel real comfortable the fire is going to stay where it's at," CDF Operations Section Chief Dave Ault said.
A dozen bulldozers were redirected to southern California yesterday, according to the Redding Record-Searchlight, and suppression costs were limited to $2 million. More than 900 firefighters -- and calmer winds -- kept the fire from growing much yesterday.
Firefighters and county officials said clearing fuels in parts of the forest slowed the fire when it was at its worst. "This fire ran until it reached some good forest management practices," said Shasta County Supervisor Glenn Hawes.
Incident Commander Terry Stinson said gusty winds on Tuesday pushed a ground fire into the crowns. "That's when it went from good to not so good," Stinson said. "We knew that it was going to be difficult to contain."
OREGON FIREFIGHTERS SOUTHBOUND
OCTOBER 30 -- MEDFORD, OR: About 300 firefighters from Oregon were sent Tuesday to a staging area in Redding, and most of the 20-person contract crews expected to receive orders to head to southern California. Two units were assigned to a 1,500-acre fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and another two were dispatched to the Redwood National Park south of Crescent City.
COLORADO FIREFIGHTERS GET RAIN
OCTOBER 30 -- BOULDER, CO: A fire that took off early yesterday in the Colorado foothills near Jamestown forced evacuations of about 100 people northwest of Boulder. The 3,500-acre Overland Fire threatened several homes. According to an AP story in the Casper Star-Tribune the fire was pushed east by 50 mph winds; smoke was hanging over Longmont, miles away. The communities of Jamestown and Lefthand Canyon were evacuated.
Agencies in the area are low on resources because many have been sent to California to help firefighters there. "We're not dangerously low," said Bruce Mygatt, fire chief of the Boulder Rural Fire Protection District, "but we are low on personnel and smaller truck apparatus for these type of fires."
Evacuation orders were lifted after rain and sleet fell yesterday, according to a firehouse.com report. "We have a much better handle on the fire," said Andy Lyon, information officer on another fire south of Denver. "There's very little concern that it's going to spread."
The Cherokee Ranch Fire on the Pike and San Isabel National Forest was 5 percent contained last night at 300 acres. The fire's burning in wildland/urban interface, fueled by ponderosa pine, oak, and grass. Over 100 homes were evacuated.
Officials suspect that both fires were started by damaged power lines.
Boulder County Sgt. Dan Barber said this morning that flames were no longer visible. Temperatures had dropped 20 to 40 degrees overnight, and winds had calmed.
FEMA approved a request from Gov. Bill Owens for federal resources to fight the fires.
FIREFIGHTER KILLED ON CEDAR FIRE
OCTOBER 30 -- JULIAN, CA: A northern California firefighter from Novato was killed and three other firefighters were injured yesterday on the Cedar Fire in San Diego County.
Two more bodies were also discovered in Barona yesterday, bringing to 20 the number of people killed in California wildfires in the last week. The Cedar Fire, the most deadly, has claimed 16 lives.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Novato firefighter-paramedic Steve Rucker was killed near Julian when he, another firefighter, a fire captain, and an engine driver were overcome by flames. Rucker's captain, Doug MacDonald, also from Novato, was in critical condition at a burn center; the two other crewmembers are recovering from moderate burns. Fred Batchelor with CDF said the firefighters were overcome by flames while protecting a house; two sought shelter inside the house they were protecting, but MacDonald was seriously injured while attempting to find Rucker, whose body was later found on the porch of the house.
According to California Professional Firefighters, the firefighters were all members of a strike team called into action from Novato by the California Office of Emergency Services. Dan Northern, deputy fire chief of the Novato Fire Protection District, said the fire turned on them and outran the crew. Novato had sent two other crews to the fire, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, but all three were pulled back.
"One of your own dies in the line of duty, you can't give full attention to the job," Northern said. "He always had a positive attitude and a smile on his face -- he was happy to be at work. He was just wonderful guy."
ARSON SUSPECTED IN MOST CALIFORNIA FIRES
OCTOBER 29 -- RIVERSIDE, CA: Most of the 10 fires in California's latest wildfire disaster probably were caused by thrill-seeking arsonists, according to law enforcement officials.
"All these fires may be arsons," said Chip Patterson with the the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "We know that arson has already killed four people in our county. I think it's a strong possibility that the others are arson as well."
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that witnesses in San Bernardino saw two men start the Old Fire on Saturday.
Eight of the other nine fires are assumed to be arson.
Andrea Tuttle, CDF director, said the agency had not ruled out arson in any of the fires.
Arson investigators are looking for footprints, fingerprints, evidence of flammable liquid -- anything to focus the case on arson.
The 206,000-acre Cedar Fire is the largest of the California fires; it was started by a 33-year-old hunter from Covina, who told investigators that he was lost and had tried to get the attention of rescue helicopters.
He was cited by the Forest Service for a misdemeanor charge of setting an unauthorized fire.
Authorities have established a hotline at (866)346-7632 for tips about any suspected arsonists.
San Bernardino County has authorized a $50,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for starting the Old Fire.
Los Angeles County is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for two fires in different parts of the county.
"We want to hear from the public," said Deputy Alba Yates of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
"If you saw something, if you know something, if you have any information about the cause of the fire, we really need your help."
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES UPDATE
OCTOBER 28 -- RIVERSIDE, CA: Southern California fires, stoked by Santa Ana winds and record high temperatures, have killed 14 people, burned 1,518 homes, and blackened over a half million acres.
The L.A. Times reported that San Diego County has been hardest hit, with at least three fires under investigation as possible arson.
The county lost dozens more homes yesterday when flames jumped Interstate 8 and burned through the Crest and Alpine communities in the mountains east of San Diego. Crews fought desperately to keep the fire from merging with another and creating what one firefighter worried would be an "unstoppable hurricane of fire."
The 180,000-acre Cedar Fire on the Cleveland National Forest is burning in chaparral about 10 miles east of Ramona. Burned structures now total 400; more than 2,300 personnel are working on this fire. Fire behavior has been extreme, with flamelengths yesterday of over 200 feet. Long-range spotting has been a problem, residents have been evacuated, and structure protection is a priority. Interstate 8 is closed between Los Coches and Crestline, Highway 67 is closed, and Interstate 5 has been closed intermittently. Containment last night was at zero percent, with containment predicted for November 5. The signonsandiego.com website has a photo gallery of the San Diego area fires, and CDF has an update page online.
The Old Fire on the San Bernardino National Forest is being managed by Mortier's Type 1 team; it's burning in chaparral on the north side of San Bernardino and is 10 percent contained at 26,000 acres. Wind-driven fire yesterday caused rapid rates of spread and spotting. The rimoftheworld.net website has a photo gallery of the Old Fire online.
Gelobter's Type 1 team is managing the 8,000-acre Padua Fire on the Angeles National Forest; the fire's about 15 percent contained and is burning in chaparral about six miles north of Claremont. Extreme fire behavior has been a problem, with sustained runs and spotting in continuous fuels.
The Paradise Fire northeast of Escondido is being managed by Snell's CDF team; the fire's 15 percent contained at 30,000 acres and is burning in heavy chaparral. Santa Ana winds have caused extreme fire behavior.
The Grand Prix Fire west of Mira Loma has been divided into two management zones; Studebaker's Type 1 team is on the east portion of the fire, and Gelobter's team is assigned to the west portion of the fire. At 57,230 acres, the fire's 35 percent contained; full containment is predicted for Friday. About 2,300 people are working on the fire, including 44 crews. Burning in heavy chaparral, the fire has made sustained runs with heavy spotting in continuous fuels. Evacuation orders have been lifted for the southern perimeter, but remain in effect for both Lytle Creek and Mt. Baldy Village. The incidentcontrol.com website has a photo gallery of the Grand Prix Fire online.
Ventura County's Simi Fire is being managed by Haines' CDF team, along with Sanchez's Ventura County team. Burning in chaparral and grass five miles north of Simi Valley, the 92,000-acre fire has made rapid uphill runs and is about 5 percent contained. Structure protection is in place.
The Mountain Fire northeast of Temecula is being handled by Matis' CDF team; it's burning in heavy brush and hardwood slash and is 55 percent contained at 9,740 acres. Winds have resulted in aggressive fire behavior with rapid rates of spread and spotting.
On the Los Padres National Forest northwest of Santa Clarita, management of the 30,570-acre Piru Fire has been handed over from Dorn's Type 2 team to Kerrigan's CDF team. It was 17 percent contained this morning. The fire grew by more than 1,000 acres early this morning when it crossed over the Sespe River drainage near Fillmore. The fire is expected to move steadily westward toward the Santa Paula area; resources and access are not sufficient to attack the fire aggressively in the backcountry areas. Firefighters this morning are building line and protecting structures on the west edge of the fire. Evacuation plans for the Santa Paula area are being developed; wind and steep terrain will again affect the fire's spread, and it's likely that the fire will grow significantly again today. Structure protection is in place for 300 homes and two commercial properties.
In Los Angeles County, a Type 2 team headed up by Osby and Vendenbossche is managing the Verdale Fire. It's burning in chaparral and oak grass four miles west of Santa Clarita. At 8,650 acres, the fire was 95 percent contained last night and full containment is expected by Friday.
The Roblar 2 Fire at Camp Pendleton is burning in chaparral about six miles west of Fallbrook. Suppression efforts have been limited because of safety concerns on the base. The fire's 85 percent contained at 8,590 acres.
The Paradise 2 Fire on the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park is burning in mixed conifer and chaparral about seven miles northeast of Three Rivers. Spotting has been a problem. It's 98 percent contained at 1,300 acres but full containment is not expected till November 15.
Hill's CDF team is managing the 45,290-acre Otay Fire south of Dulzura; it's burning in chaparral with rapid rates of spread and is 90 percent contained. Full containment is expected by tonight.
The Cuesta Fire, in chaparral and oak woodland, is about five miles northeast of San Luis Obispo. Steep and difficult terrain, high temperatures, and low RH have challenged crews on the fire. It was 30 percent contained last night at 160 acres and should be fully contained by tonight.
GRAND PRIX FIRE TAKES OFF
OCTOBER 24 -- RANCHO CUCAMONGA, CA: Miles of flame, pushed by 40 mph winds, jumped ridges and roads near Rancho Cucamonga early this morning, with thousands of residents evacuated and two major freeways closed in the path of the fire. At about 3 a.m. the winds picked up and blew the fire back south and east of Hunter's Ridge; in just an hour the fire ran south 5 miles, nearly to the 210 freeway.
A helicopter was lost in the fire; it was parked in a staging area and the fire overran it before the crew could move it. The California Highway Patrol closed both Interstate 210 and Interstate 15, and the northeastern part of Rancho Cucamonga was evacuated. According to AP reports, about 2,000 people were ordered out of the Lytle Creek area. The 3,800-acre Grand Prix Fire is about 17 percent contained, with sustained winds at 25 mph and gusting to 40 mph or more. The hot Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up over the weekend, and the winds delayed deployment of aircraft this morning.
IT'S SANTA ANA SEASON
OCTOBER 23 -- RIVERSIDE, CA: Firefighters are expecting several southern California wildfires, including one at Camp Pendleton that threatened 300 homes, to grow rapidly because of seasonal strong winds. The Santa Ana winds may have doubled the size of an arson fire in San Bernardino County overnight, according to Tricia Abbas with the San Bernardino National Forest. She said the fire had burned 2,500 acres by late yesterday; it was at 3,500 acres early this morning.
The Grand Prix Fire is being managed by Dietrich's Type 2 team; it was 17 percent contained this morning with over 690 firefighters assigned.
The fire is burning in heavy chaparral, and crews yesterday reported extreme fire behavior with torching and spotting. By last evening it had burned to Nealey's Corner (Sierra and I-15) with some of the fire dropping over the ridge above Lytle Creek Road. Helicopters were filling buckets at a couple of areas southwest of the fire, away from numerous powerlines.
An AP report said that five southern California fires have burned more than 7,000 acres. Recent record temperatures over 100º are expected to cool slightly today.
The Pass Fire in Riverside County started Tuesday and had destroyed five homes in the Reche Canyon area by this morning. It was 80 percent contained at 2,387 acres; full containment is targeted for tomorrow.
Burning in chaparral and grass, the fire is three miles northwest of
Moreno Valley, spreading rapidly and making uphill runs. Residents in the Pigeon Pass area were evacuated. The fire damaged another three homes, burned 21 outbuildings, and burned several vehicles.
In De Luz Canyon east of Camp Pendleton, a 2,772-acre brushfire threatened about 300 homes; residents were asked to voluntarily evacuate. The Roblar 2 Fire started on a training range about noon Tuesday and may have been ignited by ammunition used in military exercises. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the fire started at noon Tuesday when Marines training with live ammo ignited grass and brush in the northeast area of the base. A combination of rugged terrain and unexploded shells on the base forced firefighters just west of De Luz to let the fire come to them. By the time it did, the fire was at about 2,100 acres and was getting dangerously close to homes.
The fire was nearly 30 percent contained this morning. Domanski's Type 2 team is on this fire; it's burning in 6-foot chaparral and fire behavior yesterday was extreme.
Earlier this week, Business Wire reported that more than half of California's 12.5 million homes face wildfire dangers that pose a financial loss potential well in excess of $106 billion, according to state fire statistics and insurance industry analysis. Research by the California Department of Forestry indicates that more than 7.2 million California homes are categorized in the three highest fire risk levels -- and more than 6 million are located in urban areas. These include Los Angeles County, with more than 734,000 homes at risk (22.5 percent), Alameda County, with more than 244,000 or 45.2 percent of homes at risk, and San Diego County, with more than 619,000, or 59.5 percent of homes at risk.
The estimated 585,000 homes categorized in the highest risk level statewide pose a potential financial loss of at least $106 billion, according to CDF projections.
"The clear and present threat of devastating wildfires should be a concern to all Californians," said Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California. "Few communities are immune from the deadly combination of fierce October winds and the effects of summer's traditional lack of rain."
ITALY BUYING AIR-CRANES
OCTOBER 20 -- CENTRAL POINT, OR: The State Forestry Corps of Italy (Corpo Forestale Dello Stato) has contracted with Erickson Air-Crane of Central Point to purchase four S-64 Air-Crane helitankers for firefighting. The Italian CFS has had Air-Cranes on contract on the mainland and the islands of Sardegna and Sicily during fire season for five years now, and the purchase will include spare parts, support, training, and an option for the purchase of another two helitankers.
CFS Acting Director General Fausto Martinelli signed the agreement for four Air-Cranes, which will each be equipped with Erickson's 2,650-gallon tank system and foam cannon. Manufacturing is under way, and delivery of the first aircraft is scheduled for spring of 2004.
The CFS currently owns and operates a fleet of helicopters, from MD 500's to Bell 412's. The agency has established a series of helicopter bases for operations throughout Italy, with the principal base at Rome's Urbe Airport. Erickson first contracted an Air-Crane to Italy in 1999 on the island of Sardegna. Guido Bertolaso, Undersecretary of State and Director General for the Department of Civil Protection, referred to the Air-Crane as "the diamond head of our aerial firefighting fleet."
Protezione Civile in Italy has also used the Air-Crane for disaster relief and emergency response missions. Last year they airlifted a portable pumping station to drain a glacial lake that threatened to flood a mountain resort town, and during the recent eruption of Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily, two Air-Cranes were mobilized to support disaster relief operations. One dropped water on fires ignited by the lava flow; the other transported large cement blocks to divert lava from nearby villages and forestland.
Erickson Air-Crane owns, operates, and maintains a fleet of 18 S-64 Air-Cranes, and manufactures the S-64 as the Type Certificate holder. Erickson's pilots have racked up 70,000 flight hours in 12 countries in the last five years; the heavy-lift helicopters have put in more than 8,000 miles of electrical transmission towers across the U.S. and Canada.
STAHL'S FSEEE GROUP SUES USFS OVER FIREFIGHTING
OCTOBER 13 -- EUGENE, OR: The Eugene-based group called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) will file suit against the Forest Service tomorrow, demanding that the agency formally and publicly evaluate the environmental and social effects of wildland firefighting.
"Too many firefighters die each year in a fruitless and self-defeating war against fire," said Andy Stahl, executive director. The complaint, according to the Missoulian, will be filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula -- not because of previous enviro-friendly rulings by U.S. District Judge Don Molloy, but because, Stahl said, "Missoula is the nerve center of a huge fire industrial complex."
"The Forest Service has never, not once in its history, weighed the pros and cons of firefighting," said Marc Fink, the Western Environmental Law Center attorney representing FSEEE in the lawsuit. Stahl said FSEE's board of directors decided to expand its mission to include "ending the war on fire" about two years ago, after four firefighters were killed on the Thirtymile Fire.
"We can't think of a more appropriate organization to come to the defense of wildland firefighters or to hold our agency accountable for the unwarranted risk it places on its employees," Stahl said. "Who better to question this unjustified loss of life and squandering of almost a billion dollars a year?"
Firefighters will undoubtedly appreciate FSEEE's actions on their behalf. Despite its name, only a very small percentage of FSEEE's membership actually are or ever were Forest Service employees.
The lawsuit also challenges the use of retardant in aerial firefighting. It says the Forest Service has never prepared an environmental impact statement on its use, nor has it formally considered alternatives. "It is time to evaluate which fires should be fought and which should not be fought," said Stahl. "And we should simply stop fighting particular classes of fires -- for instance, those that burn in the early spring or late fall, when conditions are conducive to low-intensity fire."