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Facing the flames: Natural disasters in the SCV

Posted: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.

In this 2009 file photo, the burned-out shell of a truck sits at the site of the caretaker's house at the Montgomery Ranch Vineyard on Aliso Canyon Road in the aftermath of the Station Fire. Photo by Dan Watson.

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When flames sweep into a neighborhood, residents care little which firefighting agency responds, as long as it’s there to save lives and homes.

Nothing is more important than those two goals, say representatives of the three firefighting agencies that serve the Santa Clarita Valley: Los Angeles County Fire Department, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service.

“The mission of our department is to protect lives first, then property, then the environment,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said recently while the department rolled out its “big guns” in aerial firefighting: two Super Scoopers and an Erickson Sky Air-Crane Helitanker on lease every year from the province of Quebec during the county’s peak wildfire season.

“Los Angeles County has the most robust brush (fire) response in the United States,” says Dean G. McGuire, Los Angeles County assistant fire chief. “We have 23 to 27 different resources each day. ... We put a lot on into each fire to keep it small.”

All three agencies’ spending has come under scrutiny during the past few years during a recession-imposed time of government austerity. The Forest Service has seen a 5 percent cut in firefighting budgets due to federal spending cuts known as sequestration, eliminating 500 firefighters and 50 wild-land fire engines this year.
And some say it’s shaping up to be among the worst fire seasons on record.

“Every year the summer temperatures are a little warmer, hence the conditions for burning are a little more auspicious,” said Hugh Safford, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in California. “People can deny it all they want, but it’s happening. Every year the fuels are a little bit drier.”

Bigger fires, smaller budgets

The past two decades have seen fires extraordinarily large and intense, U.S. Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June. Wildfires now burn twice as many acres as they did 40 years ago, he said.

In the United States, the West is particularly troublesome, with increasing temperatures, earlier snowmelt and more prolonged dry seasons, he said.

Fighting wildfires on federal land has cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $1 billion so far this year, and the costs continue to rise.

Whether costs top the 10-year average of $1.4 billion or the $1.9 billion spent in 2012 and 2006 will depend on the rest of the wildfire season, which traditionally gets very active in Southern California as late as October, said Steve Gage, assistant director of operations for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Let it burn

Besides fire suppression, CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service have job descriptions that include land management. Among other goals, they are to manage land in ways to reduce the damage from wildfires.

That means thinning dead underbrush and controlling growth to encourage fast-moving, less destructive fires and discourage those that create firestorms like the 2009 Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest or the Rim Fire, which began Aug. 17 and is still burning near Yosemite National Forest. It’s the fourth-largest fire in California recorded history.

“The societal demand to try to control and fight these fires is escalating at the same pace as the climate’s warming,” said Jason Sibold, assistant professor of biogeography at Colorado State University.

Among the tools for reducing future fire damage is letting naturally occurring fires burn – but only under certain circumstances, said Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service.

In select areas, Jones said, the U.S. Forest Service may allow a fire to continue burning under the watchful eye of fire crews as a way to clear out low grasses or small plants and help restore the area.

“It has to be the right fire in the right place at the right time,” she said. And the Angeles National Forest — with its miles of urban interface where homes meet flammable native vegetation — is not among the right places, she said.

“There are some real challenges,” Jones said of the practice. “You can’t do that without assuming some level of risk.”

Dubbed “let it burn” by its critics, the policy is distrusted by many. One of its most outspoken critics, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, blamed the policy for the rapid spread of 2009’s Station Fire, which eventually scorched more than 160,000 acres, burned 89 homes and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters.

Following a federal review, the Forest Service changed not its “let it burn” policy but its policy against night flight for water-dropping helicopters. The Station Fire started in the Angeles National Forest, which put the USFS as its lead agency, and it got away from firefighters its first night.

The fire is considered the worst in Los Angeles County history.

Another method of managing fires is through “prescribed” or “controlled” burns, meaning fires are set deliberately under conditions ideal for control. The purpose is to rid an area of fuel that could prove problematic later.
But sometimes “controlled” burns get out of control and contribute to the public’s distrust.

“Some of it’s our own doing,” Jones said, acknowledging that the Forest Service warned of the dangers of fire for decades without noting some of its potential benefits. “It’s a challenge to undo that.”

Rim Fire

USFS ecologist Safford says the Rim Fire illustrates the need for agencies to aggressively prevent wildfires, even if it means risking prescribed burns.

The Rim Fire’s exponential growth slowed only after it hit areas that had burned within the past two decades, Safford says.

It’s been so long since most of the area burned that the fire is killing everything in its path, Safford says. The understory ignites trees, and wind sweeps the fire from treetop to treetop in a 300-foot wall of flame.

“Over the last few years we’ve come to the realization that effectively addressing fires is going to require more than just response,” Jones said. “We can’t just keep adding more firefighters and more aircraft and more equipment and manage the wildfires we have.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. In Wednesday’s Signal, find out how you can be disaster-ready – without breaking the bank.

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