Battle-tested California contains fall's wildfires

Past experience with blazes has led to more strongly enforced fire codes and closer cooperation.

Damage to homes, hillsides, and wildlife has been kept to a minimum in the wildfires blazing near here - a result of better preparedness by local residents and more coordination between local, state, and federal authorities.

Although the wildfires haven't been totally doused at presstime, California's politicians, firefighters, and residents, who have done a much better job enacting fire codes, are already claiming a victory of sorts.

"The fire department has been really diligent about preparing us for this moment, and as a result, our properties were largely spared," says Lois Ewing, who moved to Bell Canyon, north of the city two and a half years ago. The community was evacuated when a ring of fire approached from neighboring state forest land. But residents returned days later, with homes mostly unscathed - a theme repeated across the region.

"Because of how much they have come around to check on residents and fix the problems if we don't, we have had no choice but to become fire-safe," Ms. Ewing adds.

Still, considerable acreage burned, and hundreds of homes had to be temporarily evacuated. Moreover, officials say dozens of fire departments will remain on high alert for several days because of expected 50 miles per hour winds that could whip a single ember into a fast-moving inferno. Beyond that, autumn's brittle, dry conditions, exacerbated by the annual Santa Ana winds, combine to create what is known here as peak fire season, and it lasts until mid-November.

Although not completely in the clear yet, many of the major wildfires have been declared largely contained:

• The 1,091-acre fire in Burbank was 67 percent contained by Sunday night, and residents were allowed back in 70 homes in Sunset Canyon that had been evacuated;

• A wildfire that consumed 24,000 acres on the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties was 85 percent contained;

• And the 935-acre fire burning in rugged terrain around the San Bernardino National Forest, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, was declared 85 percent contained.

As smoke from a 15-mile long fire front darkened the skies above Los Angeles for days, depositing ash across communities 50 miles away, city residents have regularly expressed gratitude to firefighters for a job well done. "They saved my life, they really did," a teary-eyed Annette Travis, a canyon resident who evacuated when flames crested hills near her house, told one television news team. She returned two days later to only a scorched railing and tree branches. "This home and community is my life."

Gratitude from firefighters for residents who had applied lessons learned from past debacles was also largely in evidence. By keeping up with regulations for fire retardant roofs and siding, while clearing brush for 200 feet from all structures, residents provided less fuel for advancing fires but also room for firefighters to move equipment and dig trenches.

"Without the defensible space and without the code provisions that we have regarding non-combustible roofs and all of those things I think the damage would be much more devastating," said Los Angeles County Chief P. Michael Freeman.

On several occasions over the past two decades, such readiness, execution, and mutual praise have not been practiced. Entire communities from Malibu to Laguna to Oakland have been turned into chimney farms. In October 2003, 17 separate fires combined to become the worst conflagrations ever in Southern California, stretching from Ventura to San Diego. Officials in San Diego later criticized late and bungled response times for untold millions in unnecessary damage.

But the current spate of fires in Southern California seems to have local, state, and regional officials in rare accord. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has praised firefighters, as has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state representatives, noting increased scrutiny and pressure in the wake of widespread criticism of emergency response to hurricanes Rita and Katrina..

"It gives you tremendous pride and relief to be in an event like this to praise our first responders rather than having to apologize for them," said state representative Elton Gallegly (R).

The situation, however, has not been without tension between all officials and politicians. As Governor Schwarzenegger arrived to praise firefighters, he was criticized heavily by rank-and-file firemen and union heads alike for vetoing four state legislative bills fashioned after his own, blue-ribbon commission's recommendations.

Such legislation would have provided millions of dollars from salary increases for more of the improved technology that has helped fight the fires, such as the CL-415 Super Scoopers, Bell 206 Jetranger light helicopters used by the Los Angeles Fire Department, as well as night vision goggles and global positioning systems.

"He has not even shown an ounce of respect for firefighters," said Tim McKosker, president of Los Angeles City Firefighters Association. "After recommendations from his own blue-ribbon commission passed the legislature, he vetoed the four measures we thought were critical to safety."

The governor was praised by others, for helping to secure FEMA funding for 75 percent of fire suppression costs in the current blazes.

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