In Fires' Ruins, Lessons in Prevention

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.

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.

Mexican authorities "have it in their head to combat fire, but they're not exactly very good at it," Minnich said. Usually the fires stopped when they reached a patch of chaparral that had burned less than 20 years ago and was too young and juicy to ignite. This created a landscape that, viewed from space, resembled a mosaic: patches of land shaded dark, light or in between by the assorted smallish fires that burned themselves out.

"The mosaic stops at the border," Minnich said.

North of the line, Americans had spent a century becoming very good at putting out fires quickly. In the early 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service had a policy of extinguishing any fire by 10 a.m. of the day after its discovery. The policy of "fire suppression" meant no wildfire should be allowed to spread, and as more houses were built beside wild land, the policy became more entrenched. In California today, nearly 3.2 million homes are classified as being at "very high" or "extreme risk" of wildfire.

But suppression also means that a fire not put out immediately can become far more dangerous more swiftly, often because the weather so favors the blaze. There is no young, juicy chaparral to stop it. All the shrubs have grown old and dried out. They are ready to go.

"Southern California is arid land. It's very dry, and it was meant to burn," said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "If you have people living on that land, you have to suppress fires. Now we find ourselves in areas that don't burn for 25, 30, 40 years. When it burns, it becomes a much more intensive, damaging fire."

For ferocity, residents constantly compared last week's blazes to the 2003 fires that killed at least 15 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in San Diego County.

Perhaps the most significant lesson of 2003 may have been absorbed by Clifford F. Hunter, who picked his way through the ruins as a damage assessor for San Diego County. Looking for methods that would improve the odds of homes surviving fires too big for firefighters to control, Hunter learned that Australia builds developments so that homeowners can stay in their houses during wildfires and defend their property themselves.

Hunter didn't envision San Diego County residents fighting their own fires, but in his next job, as fire marshal for the affluent community of Rancho Santa Fe, he championed changes that made the difference between smoldering ashes and a little soot on the patio.

"I don't have to say much about what happened here," Hunter said. "I feel the results speak for themselves."

The showcases were five pricey, gated developments that had been in the planning stages for years on the hills around Lake Hodges. Hunter and other officials made them the guinea pigs for strict new building and fire codes backed by regular inspections. The rules require boxed eaves, fire sprinklers, spark arrestors on chimneys and noncombustible roofing materials rated Class A. Landscaping required fire-resistant plants such as monkey flower and sage.

"We wanted some prettier plants, but they said no. I'm going to honor every single rule from now on," said Schmidt, stunned to find her home undamaged in the Rancho Santa Fe development named Crosby, after the crooner Bing.

"I saw it on TV. This hill was on fire," said Mitra Hogg, a neighbor. She fled in her pajamas when the inferno roared through. The smoke was so heavy she couldn't see her patio furniture through the window.

But when Hogg returned, she found her back yard still green. Everything beyond it was black.

The same was true across the road in the development named Cielo. The Witch fire left behind an archipelago of green islands in a sea of scorched earth, a sprawling mansion on each one.

When Henry Nadler and his wife bought their house in 2005, fire safety "wouldn't even have occurred to me," he said. But under pressure from their homeowners association, they replaced native brush with fire-resistant plants that were still there when he returned Friday.

"When you went into this house now, you would not believe there was a fire there," he said. "My flowers are all intact. In fact, they might have gotten watered, with the water drops" from above.

A quarter-mile to the west, the contrast was stark.

Rancho Del Rio, built in the 1970s, was wild and natural, with pine trees and eucalyptus, vulnerable to wildfires because their bark is oily and their leaves or needles dry, surrounding ranch houses.

Some roads are lined with palm trees, which act "like bombs in a fire, when those embers get up in them," said Kurtis Anton, a builder.

Anton built one house that survived in Rancho Del Rio, and the garage of another that came through unharmed. "See that stucco overhang?" he said, pointing at the garage. "Embers can't get in the attic." He noted that the intact house also had a wide area of open space around it.

"After the last fire, in 2004, the fire department came and went to every house and told us what they thought we needed to get rid of or do. They gave us an approved list of plants, and we did it," said Scott Jacobs, who lives at the edge of a cul-de-sac where all four of the houses burned. "Our next-door neighbors -- they're my best friends -- they were told to take out those two big pine trees, and they didn't."

Now the blackened pines overlook heaps of ash and twisted metal. Sharon Jacobs and her daughters picked through the rubble, searching for a neighbor's engagement ring. The hubcaps of a car in the driveway had melted into streams of silver-colored lava.

The cost of clearing vegetation is higher around houses nestled in forests -- such as the San Bernardino National Forest, where hundreds of homes burned last week.

A new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council calculated an average cost of $2,510 per home in one settlement in the central Sierra Nevada range. The study pointedly noted that federal funding to encourage mitigation has been cut in half since 2001 and now amounts to only 3 percent of the $2.5 billion federal fire budget. The largest outlay is for suppression.

"A lot of the problem here is that we've become part of the fuel," said Patzert. "Nobody wants to talk about it, but in the last 50 years the population of Southern California has increased by a factor of six, especially in the areas they're having fires. It's the convergence of Mother Nature and human nature."

Geis reported from San Diego County.

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