By Kirk Johnson and Jesse McKinley
The New York Times
Sunday 28 October 2007
San Diego - As Californians sift through the cinders of this week's deadly wildfires, there is a growing consensus that the state's war against such disasters - as it is currently being fought - cannot be won.
"California has lost 1.5 million acres in the last four years," said Richard A. Minnich, a professor of earth sciences who teaches fire ecology at the University of California, Riverside. "When do we declare the policy a failure?"
Fire-management experts like Professor Minnich, who has compared fire histories in San Diego County and Baja California in Mexico, say the message is clear: Mexico has smaller fires that burn out naturally, regularly clearing out combustible underbrush and causing relatively little destruction because the cycle is still natural. California has giant ones because its longtime policies of fire suppression - in which the government has kept fires from their normal cycle - has created huge pockets of fuel that erupt into conflagrations that must be fought.
"We're on all year round," said Brett Chapman, a firefighter with the United States Forest Service who worked 15-hour shifts this week in the Lake Arrowhead area east of Los Angeles.
The main problem is that many in California are ruggedly obstinate about the choice they have made to live with the constant threat of fire. Even state officials who are interested in change concede it could take a decade - and more catastrophic wildfires - before it happens.
"If you're going to live in paradise," said Randall Holloman, a bar and restaurant owner in Cedar Glen, which is in an area that has burned twice in four years, "you're going to have to deal."
In San Diego County, which has borne the brunt of the recent fires, three out of four homes built since 1990 are in the dangerous zone where open spaces and housing meet. These are the most vulnerable and exposed places in fire season because wildfires by and large start in national forests, recreation areas and other publicly owned lands. About half of the land in San Diego County is publicly owned, much of it in the Cleveland National Forest.
Had this week's fires burned in the same locations in 1980, about 61,000 homes would have been within a mile of a fire. By 2000, the number would have grown to 106,000 homes, and this year it was 125,000, according to an analysis by the University of Wisconsin.
Nine fires continued to burn in a four-county area of Southern California, and officials said 20,575 homes were still in danger.
Lighter winds and higher humidity have enabled firefighters to go on the attack more, but many of the fires remain unpredictable and worrisome.
Fire crews at the Santiago Canyon fire in Orange County are trying to make a stand on a ridge-top old truck trail to prevent the fire from burning several homes and heading into Riverside County.
Capt. Phil Rawlings of the Orange County Fire Authority said Saturday the fire there, which has consumed 27,600 acres, is in an area that has not burned in decades, making its path difficult to predict and its intensity particularly acute.
"We don't know how the fire will burn," Captain Rawlings said. At least 200 homes could be threatened depending on how the fire proceeds.
There was also concern about a fire near the century-old Palomar Mountain Observatory in San Diego County.
It will take more than a week to put the fires out, officials said, and probably longer to stamp out flare-ups.
The long-term battle is one that fire experts suggest cannot be won, even with the better building codes and evacuation plans that have become a staple of government here and across much of the West. As the events of this week illustrate - at least 480,000 acres burned, 1,575 residences destroyed and 7 people killed - the cycle roars on with higher stakes, greater risk, and the grim certainty that it will happen again.
The California state fire marshal, Kate Dargan, said discussions had begun at the highest levels of government on some of the toughest proposals: curtailing population growth on the wildland margins or a sweeping overhaul of how the public lands are managed for fire danger. But decisions are perhaps 5 to 10 years away because of the enormity and complexity of the task.
"In the meantime," Ms. Dargan said, "we'll have more people living out there, and if averages hold, we'll have two more catastrophic incidents like this before the decisions get made."
Many Californians say they want the best of both worlds - life in the danger zone and more fire protection - and are frustrated that they do not have it.
"I'm angry that we are in the same boat," said Camie Pretzinger, who lost her Cedar Glen home to fire in 2003 and defied an evacuation order there this week. "Every time there's a disaster," Ms. Pretzinger said, "they have to reinvent the wheel."
State and local governments are locked in an increasingly difficult battle with Mother Nature.
In the aftermath of the last big fires, in 2003, a range of state and local ordinances were passed in hopes of disrupting the cycle. San Diego County went through a painstaking self-evaluation after the Cedar and Paradise fires destroyed 2,400 homes and killed 18 people in 2003. Fire officials examined properties all through the fire zone, trying to determine exactly how each house had caught fire - by what vector an ember had gotten into an attic or under a deck, whether windows had imploded, whether the roof had been the weak point.
Since then, building codes have been reworked. The new codes, which took effect in 2004 apply to new homes built in risky areas, most of them adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest.
The new rules dictate requirements right down to which side of the house can have an attic vent (not be on the forest side). Decks with overhangs are natural nests for miniature swirling firestorms that can whip embers into flame, so deck design rules were changed, too.
San Diego County was among the first in the nation to adopt voluntary standards of home protection stringent enough that homes could be deemed safe enough to "shelter in place," if evacuation is impossible. The standards require special fire resistant building materials, sprinkling systems and water supply fixtures for fire fighting, and fire-resistant vegetation controls.
There are early indications from the current fires that some of the new rules may have made a difference. Five housing projects have been built in the county under the shelter-in-place standards; all five have survived the fires.
The state, using information gleaned from San Diego, has also moved ahead with new building codes, and an updated map of the state shows the risk zone for every piece of property in California.
But few officials are talking seriously about stopping construction. Officials in San Diego, where growth has been as enshrined into the civic DNA as firmly as anywhere in America, make it clear that they will not restrain new construction in fire zones, even if it were possible to do so.
"The idea is not that we create goals and policies to slow growth, that's not the intent," said Jeff Murphy, the interim deputy director of at the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use, where the county's new fire protection building codes were developed. "It's to make sure that people are safe during a wildland fire."
The San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and three other environmental groups successfully sued in 2005 to block a proposed 57-home development near Lake Arrowhead, but that was the exception. Smaller communities like Cedar Glen, near San Bernardino National Forest, are also operating under new rules, including stipulations that homeowners provide 100 feet of defensible space around their homes.
Four years ago, most of the houses on Hook Creek Road in Cedar Glen burned to the ground when a blaze called the Old Fire came roaring out of the forest, devouring almost everything in its path and leaving behind chimneys and charred stumps that looked like headstones.
This week, history nearly repeated itself as the Slide Fire took almost the same path, burning south to north, up hills into towns, and off public lands onto private property.
Cedar Glen itself was largely spared. But just across Lake Arrowhead, the popular getaway where Ronald Reagan is said to have found the inspiration to run for public office, fire destroyed about 100 homes.
All along nearby Hook Creek Road are abandoned foundations from the last fire. The same is true to the south, where several tumbleweed-infested ruins sit along Route 18 outside the town of Skyforest, looking down onto the forest below, which is filled with burned trees from 2003 and - this week - with pillows of smoke from the recent fires.
But near the same spot, a new house is rising, built around an old staircase, apparently all that was left from a former house.
More often than not, the human response after fire is to restore, not relocate, said Thomas J. Campanella, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-editor of the 2004 book "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster."
"After disaster, people are not in any mood to change further," said Professor Campanella. "They already had their lives turned upside down, they want to get back to they way it was yesterday - turns out to be a very bad time to have vision."
Yet in the town of Running Springs, also in the San Bernardino Mountains, the reality of living next to a national forest is tragically apparent. Two hundred homes were lost in the Slide Fire. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, including a cluster of homes at the corner of Wagon Wheel Drive and Wilderness Road, where a small yellow sign across the street read: "Property boundary: National Forest land behind this sign."
On nearby roads, evacuated homes illustrated the dangers of forest-side living. The homes were close together with exposed wooden eaves and plenty of dry pine needles between them, even as smoke curled up from a smoldering fire in a canyon below. A drought-stressed pine tree grew through the deck of home, offering an enticing wick for an opportunistic flame.
Roger Straley, 47, one of the few local residents around the other day, said he had been evacuated seven or eight times in the last 20 years, and so had decided to try his hand at a fire-related profession: helping operate a water tender, which supplies water to fire trucks in the field.
"I've been evacuated so many times," he said. "I might as well try to make money on it."
Not far away, along Spyglass Drive in Lake Arrowhead, a group of five firefighters, including Mr. Chapman, the Forest Service firefighter, rested in a green Forest Service truck.
The crew had worked a 15-hour shift, and Jaime Cervantes, the driver, admitted to being tired. What would he do when the fires finally went out?
"Relax," Mr. Cervantes said, until the next one.
Carolyn Marshall and Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Will Carless from San Diego.