In reading and talking to folks about the 19 firefighter deaths this past week in the Yarnell Fire, I am reminded of how I felt after learning about the details of the 2006 Esperanza Fire where 5 firefighters were killed defending a house. The house was at the top of a long, deep canyon: a fire chimney. You couldn’t have designed a more hazardous location. After the report came out basically laying blame on the firefighters themselves for their own deaths, I wrote an essay concerning the one issue the investigators, and the fire service in general, refused to acknowledge (but everyone talks about privately). The house should never have been built in the first place.
Everything I wrote back in 2006 is applicable to what just happened in Arizona. I am hoping this time, the fire service and the country will seriously rethink the whole fire suppression model. The majority of the money spent on wildland fire needs to be spent BEFORE the fire. Making structures firesafe. Creating adequate defensible space. Developing firefighter safety zones near communities. Establishing strategic fuel breaks within 1,000 feet of communities. And most importantly, strict land planning regulations that prevent homes from being built in dangerous locations. Stop putting firefighters at risk to attempt fire suppression in the backcountry, far from communities. And stop placing firefighters at risk to protect structures in hazardous locations.
“There is an additional crisis taking place in our Southern California Forests as an unprecedented number of human-caused fires have increased fire frequency to the extent that fire-adapted chaparral can no longer survive and is being replaced with non-native annual grasses at an alarming rate. To counter these trends, forest managers will need to significantly increase the pace and scale of the Region’s restoration work. Only an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current trends.
From this point forward, Ecological Restoration will be the central driver of wildland and forest stewardship in the Pacific Southwest Region, across all program areas and activities. Future Land and Resource Management Plans, other strategic plans and project plans will identify Ecological Restoration as a core objective.”
– US Forest Service
Ecological Restoration Implementation Plan
Please go here for the full report.
Things are getting better.
At the end of the Los Angeles Times article on May 4, 2013 concerning the Springs Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains, a telling revelation: land planning, not massive habitat clearance operations make the difference.
“Both Dettorre and Lindberry said good urban planning was also an important factor this week. Ventura County has long required strict setbacks for fire protection measures for developments. These created important barriers that helped prevent flames from reaching subdivisions.
Lindberry said that’s one reason the Dos Vientos neighborhood in Newbury Park, which appeared besieged on multiple sides by flames Thursday, suffered virtually no damage.
Strict growth controls in the county have also proved helpful for firefighters.
Officials in the 1970s adopted a plan of keeping nearly all commercial and residential development within the boundaries of Ventura County’s 10 cities. That created greenbelt buffers between the cities and limited the growth of residential tracts on unincorporated land. Several major Ventura County fires burned large amounts of open space but spared neighborhoods. The massive wildfire in 2003 burned 172,000 acres but destroyed only 38 structures.
“Because of our history, we know where our fires are going to go,” Dettorre said.”
Below is the image of the Springs Fire. A classic. The fire starts next to a road (flame symbol) and then burns all the way to the ocean.