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A few thoughts on fire safety

Posted: December 10, 2008 7:11 p.m.
Updated: December 11, 2008 4:59 a.m.
 
The monster brushfire that raged through the hills above Sylmar and raced against traffic along Interstate 5 last month was finally extinguished several days after it started.

Hundreds of people awoke to what seemed like an inferno of heat and ash that made moving, breathing and seeing almost impossible tasks. The fire left behind a heart-wrenching landscape of black hills and burned-out homes.

This year, several wind-driven fires, fueled by built-up chaparral that has not burned for decades, have pushed through California suburbs. The Sayre Fire, along with several previous fires, sent chills down the spines of many people in Santa Clarita and surrounding areas because most can remember the horrifying and similar event that threatened their city in 2003.

As a resident of a community in the hills that burned above Sylmar as well as a College of the Canyons student, the fires this year have stepped unwelcomely close to my home and heart. I can recall both fires that scorched the hills around my house and how difficult it was to see, let alone breathe, in order to pack and get ready to evacuate as the flames approached.

My greatest fear during the first fire that reached Sylmar (the Merritt Fire) was of losing my home. This actually became a reality to many in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar during the Sayre Fire.

Approximately 487 of 600 of these homes lit up like matches, as reported by many who were watching from a safe distance or watching on their TVs at home.

A real concern is the great number of seniors who live in these communities. They have either already lost their homes or are in great danger next time a fire strikes. A senior couple who are friends of my grandmother were among the people unfortunate to return to nothing.

Sobbing, they told my grandmother that because of the speed the fire reached them, they were unable to gather anything except themselves in time to get out.

Years of mementos and family photos went up with their home and the couple was left with nothing to remember their past by and an unclear future to face.

Today our seniors make up a large percentage of our population and deserve a peaceful and safe place to live. Many reside in mobile home parks, which are subject to multiple concerns, including fires.

The U.S. Fire Administration reports there are roughly 17,700 fires a year in the United States involving a mobile or manufactured home. These fires result in 345 deaths, 765 injuries and $155 million in property damage each year on average. With such statistics, why would we want to place seniors in zones prone to wildfires?

The Lyons Canyon Project, although it is not a mobile home park, proposes just that. With an apparent lack of planning for evacuation and in a location where fires routinely burn, why would we designate hundreds of homes to seniors in this proposed future community?

Considering the project's description of a five-story condominium complex and only a single exit for the other housing units, one can only raise a red flag to the idea of safety for the future habitants. Even more so, just as many know, fires often cause power outages.

In a five-story condo, how will seniors be able to evacuate with no lighting or a working elevator?

So how will grading away 400 acres of wildlife area, destroying 162 oaks, including 13 heritage oak trees, and destroying the Lyons Canyon Significant Ecological Area #63 benefit us?

A fire rushing through will destroy the homes built as well as destroying the lives of many unknowingly placed in harm's way. Who does this benefit really?

Does the answer lie in the pockets of the project's creators themselves?

Local jurisdictions are forced to approve any project that includes 50 percent or more of senior housing, so it seems the promoters of this project may be abusing this law to their advantage to push their project approval forward.

Chaparral habitat has evolved with fire. But fires pushed by Santa Ana winds destroy much more in their path than the natural fires of the past.

What people must realize is that fires are common to chaparral and that they are placing themselves in its territory.

Before any more homes are built to later possibly burn, much better planning for the safety of the homes and the residents needs to be done, especially for seniors who will find it almost impossible to recover after these horrible occurrences.

Richard Chandler is a student at College of the Canyons. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmental writers.

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