By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 23 -- Fires raged across Southern California on an epic scale for a third day Tuesday, with flames as high as 100 feet stoked by extremes of wind, heat, dryness and -- on the suburban frontier where some of the worst blazes roared -- the human impulse to live just a little farther out.
Brush fires still beyond the control of firefighters forced the largest evacuation in modern times, officials estimated. The orders called for vacating 350,000 homes, affecting 950,000 people. In San Diego County alone, where the largest fire more than tripled in size over 24 hours, evacuation orders went to more than half a million people without reports of major hardships.
"It's going very smoothly," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), touring the area with federal officials, who dispatched military cargo planes and helicopters to bolster the fleet dropping fire retardant on the blazes.
President Bush, who was sharply criticized for his sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, declared a federal emergency in seven Southern California counties on Tuesday, a move that will speed disaster relief. He said he will visit the region on Thursday.
From north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, intense and unpredictable winds kept 6,000 firefighters scrambling not to defeat fires but to push them away from homes. Officials said that 1,300 dwellings were destroyed through midday Tuesday, in a burned area totaling 600 square miles.
The fires also caused a second fatality. An unidentified motorist was caught in flames outside Santa Clarita, a city north of Los Angeles that summons the iconic suburban landscape of Steven Spielberg movies, its rows of almost identical freshly built houses snugged as close as possible against the surrounding tinder-dry hills.
That boundary defined the topography of the unfolding disaster. Two of the four counties -- San Bernardino and Riverside -- burning most fiercely this week are among the fastest-growing in the United States, bedroom communities that push what ecologists call the "urban/wildland interface."
The move into the hills is for homes that are more affordable, but they are also more vulnerable. An inventory by University of Wisconsin researchers found that about two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires, said Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and author of a social history of Los Angeles.
"It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation," Davis said. "Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.
"You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans."
Some of the areas hit hardest by this week's fires are near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County. The area is thick with vacation homes, a sore spot for environmentalists who complain that federal taxpayers foot the bill for protecting houses near national forests.
"These smoke jumpers drop out of the sky miraculously to fight the fire for you, so there's incentive for county commissioners and land use departments to withhold the permitting of homes," said Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics. He was reached in Washington, where he was presenting a study showing that 50 to 95 percent of Forest Service firefighting costs went to protect private property.
Another study indicated that the cost could balloon to as much as $4 billion if development continues. California has the most homes built next to public forestland, though many jurisdictions enforce laws requiring that brush and other combustible foliage be kept away from structures.
Yet even huddled in evacuation centers and fast-food restaurants, displaced homeowners declared that they would not live anywhere else.
"We watched the neighborhood burn," said Jean Sanders, sipping a Diet Coke in a Subway restaurant in Escondido, as shifting winds pushed a crescent of flame around the city in San Diego County.
"It was coming so fast. It just went shhhh -- so fast, so fast. Across the street from us, two houses went."
Her husband, Richard Sanders, added: "We were watching, going, 'God, I hope that's not our house.' " It was recently renovated, on half an acre with a pool and a spa. It escaped damage in the 2003 and 1990 fires and they were hoping it would again.
"We have always thought the area is safe because of the way the property is kept," with manicured lawns instead of highly flammable brush, said Richard Sanders, 70. "You don't anticipate having winds blowing 90 miles an hour, blowing fire in front of it. You don't anticipate a drought."
"We'll stay," he said. "We will stay. We like the community, we like the area. The people are nice. Where we live I still think is a perfect location -- near the beach, near the desert, near Mexico, near the mountains."
Holly and Mike Friedman echoed that determination. They had left their home in the nearby San Pascual Valley early Monday morning and evacuated three times, as fire threatened each place they went. That shook Holly, at least for a moment.
"When she had no sleep in 36 hours, she said 'We are moving,' " said Holly's mother, Betty Cincanelli. But the urge to move "disappears as fast as it comes."
"Every place has something: wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes," Holly Friedman said. "There's no perfect area of the country to live."
She was calling her answering machine every few hours to make sure it had not burned. So far it was still answering, she said.
"We won't move," she said. "If our house burns down, we'll move in with [my parents]. If their house burns down, they'll move in with us. We won't leave."
The blazes outstripped the 2003 fires that many in San Diego County considered a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that caught officials and residents flatfooted. The resulting controversy brought calls for reform, but San Diego voters declined to fund improvements for the fire department, the smallest per capita for any large city in the country, said Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who is writing a book titled "Plundered Paradise."
"In terms of firefighting ability, we are woefully unprepared for major fires," he said. "We're much better at evacuation -- the reverse-911 calls," a system that automatically dials homes to order residents out.
Schwarzenegger and other officials emphasized cooperation among jurisdictions and agencies across the state and beyond, an improvement urged by a blue ribbon commission appointed after 2003.
But the fire chief in Orange County, a prosperous area wedged between San Diego and Los Angeles, complained vociferously that the pool of available assets was too small, especially in the week's frantic first 36 hours. Because no aircraft were available to attack a blaze near Irvine that arsonists apparently set, flames leapt a road and overtook a dozen firefighters who survived only by wrapping themselves in fireproof tents that they carry as a last resort.
"Yadda yadda yadda," said Fire Chief Chip Prather, dismissing the state's assurances. "All I know is, I had 12 firefighters deploy their shelters yesterday, and they shouldn't have had to do that."
Geis reported from Escondido.