After the fires, what next?

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Reaction to the long-term consequences of the recent Mountain and Silver fires has varied. While all were uniformly glad that no lives were lost and the property damage limited, how the burnt areas will affect future fire threats and how those threats can be lessened is still being debated.

The Mountain Fire was substantially larger than the Silver Fire, but the latter destroyed more property. While the Silver Fire did come close to the San Jacinto Wilderness area, it mostly burned at elevations lower than the Mountain Fire, which consumed trees and vegetation at 8,000 feet and higher.

“The Silver Fire represents a new trend,” said Richard Minnich, a professor in the Earth Science Department at the University of California, Riverside. Invasive grasses are taking over the San Jacinto foothills just south of Banning. This fire burned flash fuels and could every year as opposed to a shrub fire, which burns less frequently, he explained. The land was covered with the European grasses and the fire was accelerated with the western winds.

“Most people thought the fire in 2006 would mean there wasn’t much danger in that area for years,” said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido. “But the problem repeated.”

And it was the winds carrying burning embers onto rooftops that caused much of the property damage, according to Minnich and many fire officials. The threat of embers being transported beyond fire breaks and enabling a fire to spread without moving from tree crown to crown was an important observation that Halsey also shared.

Tomorrow, as today and the past, the crux of the issue is how much fire prevention can be accomplished, how effective it will be and who is responsible for its cost.

Wildland fires are considered natural disasters, so Haley asks, “If there are no homes on earthquake faults, people should also know where fire corridors are.”

“As a taxpayer, I resent paying 10 to 100 times the cost to protect structures in danger,” Minnich admitted.

The results and behavior of the Mountain Fire did create some protection, according to Minnich. The fire occurred during good weather, meaning light winds, but it was shepherded and largely avoided tremendous damage and consumed a great amount of fuel. Some of these areas hadn’t burned since the 1880s, he said.

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