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In Fires' Ruins, Lessons in Prevention

A housing development in Rancho Santa Fe emerged unscathed from the Witch fire. Experts said that was the result of careful adherence to fire prevention regulations in construction and landscaping.
A housing development in Rancho Santa Fe emerged unscathed from the Witch fire. Experts said that was the result of careful adherence to fire prevention regulations in construction and landscaping. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

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By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 29, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 28 -- The fires of Southern California were largely abating on Sunday. Hills on both ends of San Diego County still blazed, as did a wooded canyon in Orange County and the tall, dead trees of the San Bernardino Mountains. But with a weekend of favorable winds and even a smattering of rain, firefighters had the flames nearly surrounded.

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The hunt now was for a reason.

And as the smoke cleared across a region shaken by terrifying fires for the second time in four years, those who study the dynamics of combustion delivered a unanimous verdict:

As much as they blame Santa Ana "devil winds" and record dryness, ecologists, climate researchers and firefighters say that the towering, uncontrollable conflagrations of the past week gorged themselves on huge stocks of natural fuel that were the result of a decades-old policy of fighting every blaze in sight, including small blazes that, left alone, would have burned themselves out.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, acknowledged the paradox of the consensus he was about to state: "We fight too many fires."

But the drama of the past week also produced evidence of a man-made solution. Some houses that strictly adhered to fire-preventive building and landscaping rules survived the inferno, while nearby structures that paid less attention to those regulations went up in flames.

In northern San Diego County, residents of five newly built subdivisions expected to return to find heaps of ashes where their homes once stood. Maps and video showed that the Witch fire, the most destructive of all, had passed right through their neighborhoods.

"We were kind of in mourning," said Margi Schmidt, a resident.

Yet not one house burned. And the reason turned out to be less heroic then prosaic.

"I went and thanked a firefighter on my way back in here," Schmidt said, "and he said, 'It really wasn't that much work because you guys did the right things with your landscaping.' "

It begins with the desert. Before 24 million people lived here, Southern California's hills were empty of almost everything but grass and chaparral, spiky shrubs that can grow for decades. The land looked no different than northern Mexico, which provided a helpful comparison for a researcher at the University of California at Riverside.

Geography professor Richard Minnich noticed that south of the border the chaparral caught fire every few years. It burned for a while, but not very intensely and not very far, 500 to 5,000 acres at a time.


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