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.

However, Minnich wishes it had burned more fuel, particularly closer to the town. He thinks that the forest between Saddle Junction and Humber Park could be burned or thinned and this would reduce the threat of fire to Idyllwild.

The forest is two to three times as dense as it was a century ago, according to historical photographs and biographical accounts, Minnich said. Contributing to this is the policy of immediately stopping and putting fires out early.

“There is no way to protect structures in all that forest,” he said.

But suppression is how fire agencies reduce or eliminate threats to lives and property. Terrain and weather make controlling fires unpredictable, according to many fire officials. Without mile-wide fuelbreaks, which both Minnich and Halsey laughed at, nothing can guarantee that a fire will behave exactly as the models predict. Fire managers try to reduce the risk of worst-case outcomes, even if models suggest the value of greater burning, but fuelbreaks and fuel removal are costly, especially in wilderness areas.

Consequently, the one step everyone agrees will generate more value for the cost is “hardening” homes. Individuals and property owners need to be sure they have done as much as possible to reduce fire threats. Even then, flying embers can slip through the protection.

“The energy should be on the home owners to retro-fit against hazards, such as flying embers,” Halsey said. “The easiest approach is to retrofit vents and ensure defensible space.”

At least two homes in Twin Pines might have burned after the Silver Fire passed by because of embers landing on a porch and slipping through an eave vent, according to Fire Safe Council Executive Director Edwina Scott. In both cases, the potential fire was discovered before the house was in flames and lost. But they indicate that homeowner defensiveness is critical.

“Clearance and hardening of homes is critical,” said Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins. “Fuelbreaks are important if they are well designed and maintained.”

The Forest Service received a surge of funding following the 2003 fire siege in Southern California. More than $30 million was directed to the San Bernardino National Forest for hazardous fuel reduction. Westridge, Southridge and Pine Cove fuelbreaks were all re-established and improved.

But funds for regular maintenance have not been allocated in the five to seven years since that work occurred. Minnich thinks the San Jacinto forest is too dense and needs substantial clearing. Some, such as Halsey, question the confidence placed in fuelbreaks when he says the Station Fire in 2009 jumped every fulebreak while burning in just dry vegetation.

Without financial support, Minnich’s recommendation for a permanent saw mill in Garner Valley would unlikely be sustainable. Which is why homeowners and residents must be more cognizant of their own responsibility to reduce the threat of fire damaging their domiciles.

California Public Resources Code 4291 requires defensible space out 100 feet from homes and structures. Halsey says 300 feet is better. He also thinks local governments need to employ zoning ordinances more effectively to avoid development in fire-prone areas or to only permit cluster housing rather than single homes randomly spread out. “In some places, it is not reasonable to put houses there, especially the big tract type,” Halsey emphasized. “If it’s fuelbreaks or vents, I’d go with vents.”

“There’s a difference between the wildland urban interface, like Idyllwild, and the inter-mixing areas such as Poppet Flats,” said Hawkins.

Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz says he will be looking for more maintenance or abatement throughout the year.

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