California's search for wildfire solutions

Officials examine everything from role of the military in firefighting to retrofitting roofs to double-pane windows.

In the manzanita expanses of Ventura County just north of Los Angeles, last week's fires swept through the area as they did elsewhere in southern California - with little sympathy for anything in their path.

With one important exception.

Even though the fires consumed 172,000 acres, relatively few homes in the county were destroyed. One reason: strict laws that order backcountry residents to clear brush from within 100 feet of homes.

As mundane as it sounds, strictures like this are part of a fundamental rethinking going on across California in the wake of the worst fires since the Yellowstone infernos in 1978. From forest- thinning practices to the role of the military, California officials are examining ways to prevent a repeat of the fires that cost the state more than $2 billion.

Yet for all the regulations and new funding likely to come out of the disaster, a larger question underlies the debate: Does the main responsibility for protecting structures ultimately lie with homeowners themselves - with their choice of roofing, landscaping, and even windows?

Certainly, the issue isn't likely to vanish any time soon. While the overall acreage burned in the latest fires was extensive, it barely amounts to a few smudges on a California map. The Golden State has plenty of acreage left to burn. "This is not the last fire," says Thomas Bonnicksen, a forestry expert who has monitored wild lands for three decades. "We're not going prevent the fire process. That will never happen."

Some scientists like Bonnicksen say firefighting efforts, ironically, are partly to blame. Crews try to put out brush fires instead of letting them burn, leaving some wild lands untouched by flames for decades. Prescribed burns, preplanned wildfires, are one possible solution. But government-lit fires carry risks: A prescribed burn leapt out of control in New Mexico in 2000, burning 235 structures.

Thinning forests through logging is another option, and California's rash of wildfires is spurring federal legislation that will allow loggers to expand their reach. Last week, the Bush administration-supported "Healthy Forests Initiative" suddenly entered the fast track and was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate. The House and Senate must now work out the final details of their competing versions.

But there's no timber to be found in Southern California's national forests, says Sierra Club forestry adviser Sean Cosgrove, who adds that the Bush version of the bill didn't include money for reduction of flammable vegetation.

Others want to make it easier for the military to assist local firefighting efforts. San Diego-area Congressman Darrell Issa (R), for instance, hopes to loosen 70-year-old federal laws that prevent the military from joining the war against flames until civilian resources are exhausted.Some officials here think such a move could have helped doused the Cedar Fire early on.

Coordination questions are surfacing, too. San Diego officials have complained bitterly that many local crews headed north to fight fires in the Los Angeles area and couldn't be called back to help when the Cedar Fire broke out later. Even so, extra resources may not have helped: At its height, the blaze was burning an amazing 6,000 acres an hour.

Ultimately, experts say, the greatest responsibility for fire prevention may lie with those who live in the fire's path. Many laws already exist that regulate residential construction and homeowner responsibility. New and replacement roofs cannot be made of wood shingles, for instance. One question now is whether homeowners be forced to retrofit existing wood- shingled roofs. Many doubt that will happen, since replacing a roof can cost $10,000. "The laws aren't in place to force people to make their properties and homes fire resistant," says Tim Sexton, who oversees prescribed fires for the US Forest Service.

There are more drastic steps homeowners can take. Donald Pearman, a fire consultant who lives two miles from 1991's deadly Oakland Hills fire, is a notable example. He installed a fire-resistant roof, a $10,000 stone deck, a $3,000 machine that turns water into fire-protective foam, and a 3,000-gallon water supply.

He's not alone. A variety of Southern California communities, like Ventura County, took precautionary measures which are now being looked at by others:

• Officials in Los Angeles kept wildfires out of the heavily populated San Fernando Valley by using its own firefighting aircraft. Fire-stricken San Diego has no such fleet.

• Despite being on the edge of a wildfire near Los Angeles, a planned community called Stevenson Ranch survived intact. Homes there are fitted with a variety of fire-safety features, such as double-paned windows that won't easily break and allow flames to enter. The community also made brush-clearing a priority and even installed valves for firefighters in some pools.

"You can't prevent wildfires, but you can do a lot of work to prevent your home from burning down," says Sierra Club's Cosgrove.

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