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In California's Mountain fire, lessons of Yarnell tragedy are everywhere

The Mountain fire in California is burning 'some of the more treacherous terrain in the US,' and the memory of last month's Yarnell Hill fire is leading to an abundance of caution.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 18, 2013

Wildfire smoke billows over the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Idyllwild, Calif., Wednesday. The blaze about 100 miles east of Los Angeles had grown to more than 35 square miles.

Meagan Greene/AP

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Los Angeles

As thousands of residents exit their homes in California's San Jacinto Mountains, the so-called Mountain fire is raising questions about whether firefighters should be taking greater precautions after last month's Yarnell fire killed 19 firefighters in Arizona.

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The concerns are particularly acute because the Mountain fire "is cooking away in some of the more treacherous terrain in the US – steep, rugged, inaccessible, indefensible," says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and firefighting expert at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. 

According to interviews with fire officials and fire experts, the operative phrase post-Yarnell seems to be, “err on the side of caution.” It’s not so much that tactics or procedures have changed – the report on Yarnell Hill is not yet complete – but that there is a heightened sense of the need to follow existing and time-tested procedures to the last detail.

As of Thursday morning, the Mountain fire had split in two directions. The situation of a fast moving fire line with 40- to 60-foot flames proved too much for nearly 3,000 firefighters, and authorities called for the evacuation of 6,000 residents and visitors in Idyllwild, Fern Valley, and nearby wilderness regions including Mount San Jacinto State Park. The Forest Service says about 2,200 homes and 4,100 residences including hotels, condominiums, and cabins were evacuated.

As of 6:00 a.m. Pacific time Thursday, the fire had consumed close to 20,000 acres and was only 15 percent contained.

AccuWeather.com meteorologists expect winds to remain relatively light from the west and northwest through the end of the week. “However, local effects produced by the terrain and the fire itself can continue to cause the blaze to spread rapidly,” says an AccuWeather.com release.

Temperatures are forecast to peak near 100 degrees with low humidity through Saturday.
For now, firefighters are returning to the basics. A 1957 task force assessed the worst fires from 1937-1956 and came up with 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations that can be distilled to a four-letter acronym: LCES, for “Lookout,” “Communication,” “Escape Routes,” and “Safety Zone.”

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