Lessons From '93 Malibu Fires Help to Minimize Losses Now

Southern Californians are once again facing the consequences of building hillside communities in the semiarid fringe of scorching desert.

But despite dj-vu images of towering fire plumes and black-sooted firefighters, officials and residents here are lauding new precautions - adopted after this region was scarred by 17 simultaneous firestorms in 1993 - for keeping damage to a minimum.

"We have instituted a whole host of procedures after the lessons of three years ago," says Jesse Perez, fire planning chief for Los Angeles County. More than 260 Malibu homes were destroyed when similar, wind-whipped fires rolled through the hilly, seaside community three years ago. At press time, only five Malibu residences had succumbed to flames and two others had been damaged.

Other parts of southern California, however, have fared much worse. The seasonal hot, baking winds, known as Santa Anas, have sent walls of fire through parts of Carlsbad, a city in northern San Diego County. There, 98 homes were destroyed.

Overall, the fires have charred some 35,000 acres since Monday. In the Los Angeles Basin, a fire in the Lemon Heights section of Orange County burned about 30 homes, destroying 10.

At Malibu City Hall, miles from the fires' front lines, Mr. Perez is overseeing 17 strike teams made up of nearly 3,000 firefighters from city, county, and state jurisdictions, as well as neighboring states. Strike teams use updated topographical maps showing areas most vulnerable to flame. Maps include escape routes for firefighters, and they designate areas of refuge in shifting wind conditions. Such coordination is helping the various organizations to mobilize quickly, then strategize and respond better than in previous brush fires.

Computers, phones, and walkie-talkies provide communication with local water departments. The equipment is intended to avoid past fiascos in which on-site access was limited or inadequate water pressure rendered equipment unusable. Officials now know the areas that have piped water and those that need portable water tankers.

New programs to clear chaparral from vast areas of dry underbrush - which dies and accumulates beneath bushes, fallen trees, and fences - have also helped, officials here say. Residents and civic groups have united in clearing their own properties of such fire hazards as well. More have used fire-retardant materials for roofing. Such precautions have helped to prevent fires from leaping from structure to structure, as they did in the fatal California fires in Oakland and Laguna in previous years.

"It's a great credit to Malibu residents [that] their brush-reduction program has allowed for a significant reduction of homes lost," Gov. Pete Wilson (R) said Tuesday during a site visit. Later, he declared three counties disaster areas, for the purposes of attaining US and state aid.

THE use of two new SuperScooper airplanes - which can scoop vast amounts of water from the nearby ocean and dump it immediately in the path of moving flames - has helped keep burning brush from racing up and down canyon walls as it did in the October fire season three years ago.

"They're great," says Malibu resident and evacuee Debbie Pierson. After the 1993 fire, purchase of the planes had been controversial and remains so for some. "When they talk about getting rid of those [SuperScoopers], they're crazy," she says.

Widespread readiness has become imperative in recent years, as communities have found themselves threatened by racing flames that hours or even minutes before seemed to pose no threat. Pre-planned routes for evacuations, water drops, and airlifts have kept casualties to a minimum.

But even with the best planning, emergencies occur. Six firefighters were injured Tuesday after officials had all but called one fire out. The wind shifted and fanned embers into flames before igniting underbrush into plumes 25 feet high.

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