Monday, November 19, 2007

Reflections on the SoCal Fire Siege of '07

by Mike


In late October of this year, the Santa Anna winds began to howl through the mountain passes around San Diego, and along with the wind came the long-predicted wildfires. I try to resist calling it a “natural disaster.” Since the wildfires were the work of arsonists, snapped power lines, and the archetypical child playing with matches, the fires were hardly natural. And without the unwise housing development and overpopulation down there, the fires would not have been a disaster.

My story is not one of the half-million refugees who hastily packed (if they were lucky), fled their homes, and stayed in the unfamiliar environments of distant friends and family, the Oceanside Wal-Mart parking lot, or evacuation centers like Qualcom Stadium. My story is only one out of the ten thousand firefighters who were mobilized for this epic event. Though many brothers and sisters in the Fire Service were genuine heroes in those initial hectic days before the wind subsided, I was not a "hero." But my experience as a wildland firefighter on the SoCal Fire Siege of '07 did rekindle in me a sense of duty and honor to serve, and for that reason it is worth telling.

To begin this story in the proper context, I have to go back to the beginning of this fire season. Once again, in what seems to be happening with greater frequency, a drought in Southern California at the beginning of the summer marched relentlessly northward up into the Northern Rockies where over 3 million acres burned in Idaho this season, more than during the Big Blowup of 1910. Earlier this spring, a half million acres burned in a “fifty-year event” in the Southeast, with the Okeefenokee Swamp as its epicenter. Atlanta’s water supply remains threatened by continuing drought in that region, and large wildfires have ignited again in the Southeast.

The Southern Sierra was also showing record low fuel moistures early in the season, and parallels with past catastrophic fire seasons were frequent fare for shop talk among fire crews. Early in the season, large fires like the Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe showed alarming fire behavior. Managers were so wound uptight that an excellent candidate for wildland fire use was suppressed after it grew to three hundred acres in early September, based on fear that the fire would grow to thousands of acres before its season-ending event.

By October, Yosemite had received two to three shots of precipitation of less than one inch each, and the days had shortened. The aspen trees were showing their fall colors as firefighters completed a prescribed fire project of nearly 900 acres adjacent to the community of Yosemite West. As usual, complaints were received about the smoke, especially one day when some smoke moved towards the polluted San Joaquin Valley. Though we have the same objective of improving community fire protection as those firefighters putting out wildfires, our prescribed fire lighters get far less praise and much more nuisance complaints about smoke and negative reactions by those whose sense of aesthetics is offended by black trees. Air quality managers were urging us to end our prescribed fire quickly as they feared the east winds forecasted for southern California would blow Yosemite’s residual smoke down into the San Joaquin Valley. Fortunately, the prescribed burn was finished on a Friday and placed in patrol status. The Santa Ana winds began to blow in San Diego the very next day.

Caption: Aspen showing fall colors in Elevenmile Meadow in Yosemite National Park after prescribed fire is completed.

The Firestorm

Resource orders began to stream into Yosemite’s dispatch center as fires burned wildly out of control around the San Diego area. It looked like 2003 all over again. Overall, Yosemite would send over forty firefighters out individually in overhead assignments, as part of a twenty-person handcrew, and to staff the Park’s helicopter, fire engine, and even the Park dozer. I waited until all the other Park crews had been assigned before I took a Division Group Supervisor assignment on the Rice Canyon Fire. I didn’t leave until Wednesday morning, after the winds had subsided and things began to move towards mop-up and overhaul. Yosemite did have another Division Group Supervisor who spent a hectic night on a twelve mile long division where homes were lost in the howling wind. That experience should prove very valuable as the inexorable march of new housing development into flammable wildlands continues throughout the Sierras. I heard another story about the wind being so fierce that it was hard to open one’s vehicle door, then upon opening it, embers would come flying in and ignite any important papers that might be lying around, like shift plans, fire maps, etc. Scary stuff, to be sure!

My first eerie experience was driving into the completely deserted town of Fallbrook, California. This is a mid-sized bedroom community on the eastern edge of Camp Pendelton. It was odd seeing an American city empty except for firefighters, police, and Marines patrolling in Humvees. As I began to get oriented to the area I was assigned, I was shocked that many folks in the area seemed to have more money than common sense, with homes built on knobs and in draws that just defied logic. How one could live in such a place, and not expect to have it reduced to ashes is beyond me!

Caption: This homesite in the foreground and the homesite on the knoll in the background were located in a natural pathway for wildfire and were totally destroyed by the flames.

I was also shocked at the amount of damage to the avocado crop. Unlike the citrus plantations, the avocado groves were not very effective as fuel breaks because there were many places where deep, dry avocado litter carried the fire well under the extremely windy conditions. The 60 to 80 mph Santa Ana winds blew all of the ripe avocados to the ground where they were ground into guacamole by fire truck tires. It was very sad to see so much wasted produce!

Also, my Division was a favorite spot for press photo opportunities, especially the Valley Oaks mobile home park. The tightly packed mobile homes were too close together, and over a hundred mobile homes—over half of all the homes in the trailer park--were completely destroyed by fire. A week after the fires began Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger showed up at the trailer park for a photo op. This was after most of the mainstream newsmedia coverage had initially focused on the burned mansions of Malibu.

Caption: A fire engine watches over destroyed mobile homes in the Valley Oaks trailer park.

Throughout my firefighting experience in SoCal, I was consistently struck by the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Most of the Valley Oaks residents probably didn’t have insurance and had few places to go, unlike the residents of muti-million dollar homes. The mansions will likely be rebuilt in the same spots, setting up the same split-second life-or-death decision for firefighters again, attempting to protect those structures for a future wildfire. Wealth certainly provides more options, like the utilization of proper fire-resistant homebuilding materials. Many homes built with stucco roofs and other less flammable components had fire race right up to and around the home with little impact.

Caption: This home built with fireproof construction materials survived the wildfire.

In Idaho this year we also saw for the first time what wealth can bring in the way of a high-end home insurance policy. I saw firsthand a piece of equipment, probably a truck with a compressed air foam system (CAFS) or some other gel-like application apparatus, roaming the streets of Fallbrook tending to their rich clients home. Like Blackwater in the military area, these resources are not linked in any way to the ongoing suppression operation’s organization, and probably have no way to communicate on the incident’s radio frequencies. Nonetheless, they are there, free to roam at will beyond the barricades that bar all others including local residents and journalists, looking out for their clients’ investments.

In another case of class inequity in feeling the fires’ heat, one can turn to the Witch Fire that devastated a Native American community around Rincon, California. As the Santa Anna winds swept the fire down off the hill, it was fueled by the junk and debris scattered between the poorly-built and highly flammable dwellings north and east of the sprawling Harrah’s casino. I’m not sure if the casino missed a spin of the wheel or roll of the dice for even one day while the wildfire was causing mayhem all around it. It must have been quite a sight up on the top floor of the casino sipping cocktails while watching the fire burn it’s way through the squalor below.

I did notice that the camp for many of the utility company trucks was located right next to the casino. Camp for the firefighters was prudently located much farther away, although I did notice some overhead from the CalFire team were staying at the hotel. I’m sure that since they were being paid 24 hours per day they did not partake in any gambling opportunities! The utility repair folks moved quickly back into the evacuated burned-over areas, patching powerlines and getting their product flowing again into consumers’ homes.

I listened intently to the morning talk show radio, and it was interesting to sort through the self-congratulatory tone of the politicians and fire chiefs, in contrast to the anger and frustration of those who could not get back through the barricades to assess their losses. I felt sorry for the cops at the roadblocks. They were harassed mercilessly. On thing I did pick up on was the unwillingness of the newsmedia to follow the money trail. It seems a foregone conclusion on sun- and money-drenched sunny Southern California that politicians will act in collusion with the developers, homebuilders, road-builders, and utility companies to continue putting homes and people in the pathway of wildfire. No looking back, is the motto. I seldom heard anyone spending much time blaming those that created this mess of humanity at the doorstep of one of the country’s most fire-prone landscapes.

Occasionally, you would hear a call for better zoning, but this was usually squelched in a land known for the loathing of taxes and regulatory restrictions. In fact, a bond had recently been voted down that would have increased firefighting staff in San Diego County. Now, of course, an increase in suppression resources will be the likely outcome of this event. The preferred solution to most folks living next to Camp Pendleton was “shock and awe.” Unlike Idaho’s experiment this summer with point protection, it looks like Southern California will maintain and reinforce its “fire as enemy” mentality, foolishly believing that with enough “heavy metal” aircraft, engines, firefighters, and equipment, the wildfire “beast” can be brought to its knees. That was the refrain heard on local talk radio time and again, rather than the need for more thoughtful housing development.

Caption: a fleet of "heavy metal" staged on the Poomacha Fire.

The remainder of my assignment was spent as a Field Observer on the Poomacha Fire atop Palomar Mountain. As the eyes and consul to another Division Group Supervisor, with no firefighters working directly beneath me, this couldn’t have been a better assignment. There I met up with a strike team of structural engines from Los Angeles and a mixed squad of engines and firefighters from the Prescott National Forest who had teamed up in the early days of this blaze to protect many homes on top of Palomar Mountain, and conducted a successful burnout around a church camp. There, with a small organization, two fire cultures worked together with their respective expertise to do the unheralded and unimaginable. Both groups will have many stories to tell their children.

At one point I was able to make it over to the Palomar Observatory, where somebody in their hasty evacuation had left the door wide open on their way out. I was able to roam around the interior of this fabled place along with some other firefighters while a bored contingent of Marine Engineers was cutting dozer line around the nicely-manicured grounds around the observatory. I wondered how much environmental compliance that would normally have required and if it was really necessary since the fire was five miles away and going out quickly.

Eventually, even the Poomacha Fire began to wind down. The pressure was on the CalFire team to get the fire contained before a Forest Service team was slated to take over at the end of the weekend, a date I had hoped would end my personal contribution to the SoCal Siege of ’07. However, my respite at the church camp atop Palomar Mountain was jarred for my last two days on the fire. Always eager to be of help, I kept making my way to the last open, unlined section of the fire. As it turned out, hotshot crews had refused to go cut fireline into some of these areas, much of which was inside a tiny wilderness area on the San Bernardino National Forest. Unwilling to be patient and watch as fuels burned down in a northeast-facing canyon with lot of unburned fuels and scabby burn, the last effort before I left was to saturate the area with inmate crews. Over a dozen strike teams were flown in on my last shift, digging line around innumerable fire fingers in sketchy steep terrain, all to put a black “Line Completed” mark on a map.

With the Poomacha Fire being one of the last few fires still uncontained, I can believe that the political pressure on fire managers to wrap it up must have been intense. None of that really justifies the unnecessary resource damage to wilderness, though. I was stunned the day before when an unnamed Branch Chief, for whom I was working, kicked a Type II mixed federal/contract crew off of the fire because, for safety’s sake, they demanded to scout the fire area more thoroughly, before sending in their crews. Inmate crews had been unable to get to this site before because their crew carriers could not get up the rough roads. The Branch Chief simply ordered helispots be built immediately adjacent to wilderness so that a massive helicopter troop shuttle could be orchestrated to bring in these crews, with no turn-down protocol. Fortunately, all of the many dozen flights went off safely as planned.

Caption: Looking south from the Poomacha Fire towards the Witch Fire.

All of this gives a policy wonk quite a bit to chew on with its stark contrasts to the shift in suppression strategy that occurred in the Northern Rockies this year (In a curious side note, a couple of subdivisions marketed as ‘shelter-in-place’ communities in the San Diego area, with strict building and fuel reduction codes, emerged largely unscathed from fires burning around them). An overwhelming response of firefighters and “heavy metal” remain the preferred strategy in SoCal. It is impractical to believe that much prescribed burning will ever be conducted near such a dense population center, and apparently housing development can’t or won’t be restricted, so be prepared for more mayhem in this part of the country.

I’m glad that our prescribed fire crews were able to get down to SoCal and help out. They deserve some of the same gushing appreciation for firefighters displayed in all the home-made banners and home-cooked cupcakes that were delivered to the Incident Command Posts. In the real world, the job of making communities fire-safe remains a job of proactively planning and prescribing fires to protect communities from wildfires remains a largely unseen and unheralded job without much outpouring of public support.

Given the insane housing development that is already planning to rebuild homes atop charred foundations and locate new homes in the very footprint of the recent wildfires, I'm sure that this prescribed burner will soon get another chance at firefighting heroics on the next SoCal conflagration.