California wildfire lessons: Steps by homeowners cut damage
Fireproofing existing homes and enforcing limits on brush allowed some communities to survive.
The dramatic news footage depicting towering walls of flame, exhausted firefighters, and plumes of smoke don't tell the story. Tearful, day-after tours of the rubble do.Skip to next paragraph
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That's when local newsmen with video cameras walk house to house and ask the troubling question: Why was this structure spared when the homes on both sides were incinerated?
Sometimes, even bigger questions nag. Why was this neighborhood obliterated while that one was passed over unscathed?
The facts are slowly emerging. Aside from the heroic efforts of firefighters, improved logistical planning by local officials, increased funding for better trucks, planes, flame retardant and other tools, a key factor in fighting fires here is the proactive initiative of homeowners.
Stricter enforcement of codes adopted by scores of communities in the past two decades has residents clearing out trees, brush, and shrubbery next to their homes. Also, homeowners and communities are taking voluntary preventive measures such as practicing fire-resistant construction.
New California building codes, which took effect in January, ban wood siding and wood-shake roofs from new construction in fire-prone areas. But residents in existing homes are also replacing wood shingles with cement tile and wood siding with stucco as well as rebuilding wood porches to be more fireproof. Entire developments have adopted so-called shelter-in-place construction.
The newer luxury development at Olinda Ranch, near Brea in Orange County, for instance – about 660 homes built with cement-tile roofs, stucco walls, and sprinkler systems – escaped with minimal charring, while the adjacent community of Oak Ridge lost nearly 500 homes. Many of those homes were in a mobile-home park, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for a new review of state building codes.
"As a whole, we are learning the lessons of these giant fires," says Ana Cave, emergency manager for the town of Brea. "The truth is that we are doing better because of the newer technology, which has been a great success in these high-hazard areas. Some of the homes that went up in flames did so because people had lived there 30 to 40 years and had begun to take it for granted that nothing would happen because nothing had happened so far."
Because of seasonal Santa Ana winds, which speed down out of the Great Basin and Mojave Desert and scorch the ever-drier chaparral, one of the biggest problems in fighting southern California wildfires is airborne embers. This past week, winds reached 80 miles per hour several times over four days of intense fire. Besides blowing ahead of firefighters into entirely new areas of dry tinder, the embers landed on the tops of houses that then smoulder and ignite.