California's fire policies feel heat

As hundreds of homes are destroyed, debate rises over density and location of subdivisions.

The spate of fires that began leapfrogging across Southern California Saturday, fueled by unseasonably hot weather and scorching winds, once again spotlights the vulnerability of California's arid climate to quick-moving blazes.

As happened 10 years ago, when flames destroyed 265 homes in Laguna Beach and in 1991 when 400 homes were devoured in the residential hills of Oakland and Berkeley, debates on past lessons and new regulations are already swirling like the white ash now rising above San Bernardino's blackened foothills.

Those debates include how California home builders site their subdivisions amid the tree-lined canyons where lush undergrowth fed by winter rains become tinder-dry brush by summer and late fall. They include fresh assessments of how well homeowners are keeping the leafy growth trimmed back, whether or not bans on flammable building materials have been effective, and severe critique of neighborhood planning designs that should have prevented the flames from leaping from one residence to the next.

As communities scrambled to contain current fires, officials are rushing to examine their own enforcement of new requirements of tile roofs, noncombustible and fire-resistant siding, and mandated sprinklers inside homes.

The employment of hundreds of local firefighters is once again testing the readiness and resolve of communities to protect citizens. And it is challenging promised improvements in past years that include widening hiking trails in canyons and hills to improve fire truck access to homes - and in correcting embarrassing deficiencies in firefighting equipment.

Dramatic video images of 12-mile-long fire lines only helped to fuel the new examination of the state's fire readiness as flames spread across meadows and open spaces, crossed highways, and ignited ridges and canyons across the state. Fanned by triple-digit temperatures and raging 50-m.p.h. winds, as many as seven simultaneous fires have charred forest and open spaces, destroying hundreds of homes, closing freeways, and causing the evacuation of thousands.

The same winds that drove the flames delayed the deployment of firefighting aircraft trying to contain the fires allegedly started when a lost hunter set off a flare for help. Ash dropped for miles and heavy smoke darkened the skies across southern California while round-the-clock media coverage revisited the horrors of the state's previous fires in which entire neighborhoods were evacuated amid smoke and flames.

Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino and Ventura counties late Saturday where more than 4,200 people were ordered to leave. The campus of California State University, San Bernardino, was evacuated, as was a state mental hospital. Blazes also continued from Ventura county to the north to San Diego near the Mexico border.

Frantic residents tried to save their homes by hosing them with water, or digging fire trenches and placing sandbags, jeopardizing their own safety and obstructing fire crews. Local churches and schools were opened to serve as temporary shelters. Over the weekend, more and more residents arrived clutching prized paintings or stuffed animals or anything they could hurriedly grab before evacuating their homes.

The glut of evacuees and closed highways caused even more traffic problems in the Los Angeles basin, already ensnarled in a public transportation strike.

Dozens of volunteers from neighboring communities pitched in to help save homes and provide transportation and shelter. The Red Cross set up shelters and gave medical and other aid.

Governor Davis appealed to President Bush to declare of several of the fire sites as disaster areas to qualify homeowners for long-term, low-interest loans - and free up additional funds for police, fire, and other emergency crews.

At press time, predictions were mixed on which blazes could be contained and which would spread or even merge. At least 200 homes have been leveled and 34,000 acres blackened, and damage are at more than $150 million.

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