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A History Of Brush Fires

November 06, 1987|Clipboard researched by Rick VanderKynff, Nancy Reed, Henry Rivero, Deborrah Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

It's been 20 years since the disastrous Paseo Grande fire swept through nearly 50,000 acres in Orange County. Fueled by a Santa Ana wind, the fire took one life, destroyed 46 homes and 11 other structures and caused the greatest evacuation of residents in the county's history.

Residents of Santa Ana Canyon, Villa Park, Cowan Heights, Lemon Heights and Black Star Canyon were roused in the dark to evacuation on Halloween weekend, 1967. Many homeowners stayed behind to hose down roofs, but more than 2,500 fled to evacuation centers. In all, 40,590 acres burned in county territory, 2,967 acres in Cleveland National Forest, 1,123 in Orange, 173 in Villa Park and 190 acres in Anaheim. The balance was in Riverside County.

Two decades later, the Santa Ana winds are still unstoppable, but methods to both stunt fire hazards and combat blazes have moved into the computer age.

According to city, county, state, and federal fire officials, landscape and wilderness management, fire retardant roofing and improved fire agency communications are now in place to help prevent a fire of Paseo Grande proportions.

CHRONOLOGY 1. Sept. 9, 1987--Sept. 9, 1987--An arsonist started the Silverado Canyon brush fire that burned 7,100 acres in the Cleveland National Forest. At the fire's peak, 1,200 fire fighters fought the blaze that cost an estimated $2.4 million. No structures were damaged. 2. Aug. 12, 1985--A brush fire in Carbon Canyon destroyed nearly 1,500 acres. No structures were damaged and no injuries were reported. Cause of the fire, which started on land leased by Shell Oil Co., never was officially determined. It cost the county an estimated $300,000 to fight the blaze.

3. Oct. 9, 1982--The $16-million Gypsum Canyon fire, caused by a downed power line, burned nearly 17,000 acres and destroyed 14 luxury homes in the Villa Park-Anaheim Hills area. No injuries were reported. 4. Nov. 24, 1980--The Indian-Trabuco Canyon fire, believed started by an arsonist, burned 28,000 acres of watershed valued at $7 million, mostly in Orange County and the Cleveland National Forest. Although the blaze threatened many homes, only three cabins and four other buildings were lost. 5. Oct. 28-30, 1980--The Owl Canyon fire, caused by arson, destroyed 14,873 acres in Riverside and Orange counties. The blaze took three days to control.

6. Oct. 29-Nov. 2, 1967--The Paseo Grande fire, believed to have been started by children playing with matches and fanned by 50-mph winds, scorched 50,000 acres and destroyed 66 homes valued at more than $2.5 million in the Lemon Heights-Santa Ana Canyon-Cowan Heights area. One woman was killed when she was struck by a runaway vehicle and at least nine others, including four firefighters, were injured. 7. Dec. 15-Dec. 19, 1958--One of the largest brush fires in California's history destroyed 66,300 acres in eastern Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties. The fire was started by a tracer bullet used by a man who was target practicing in Lake Elsinore.

Laws, Procedures Enacted in Wake of Disastrous Fires In 1968, a year after the Paseo Grande fire, combustible roofing materials were prohibited on any new structure built within 1,000 feet of a brush-covered area in unincorporated sections of the county. Also that year, as a direct result of the Paseo Grande fire, Orange County fire warden was given representation on the Orange County Subdivision Committee. In all county areas and in many cities, laws have been passed requiring all builders to plan for fires with landscape modification--planting less-flammable vegetation that is low in fire fuel. Builders developing in unincorporated areas of the county must submit landscaping plans for review before grading permits are issued. Property owners are also required to manage vegetation on their property to minimize the fire hazard. If they don't, the county does, and the cost is added to the owner's property tax bill.

Wilderness areas are now closed to the public during fire season. In Orange County, the majority of such lands belong to several large property owners, and thus access can be more tightly controlled.

The state's vegetative management program passed by the Legislature in 1980, created a proscribed burning program to manage dried brush in the wilderness. About 50% of the county is covered by natural vegetation. Older brush--known to fuel a fire at a speed of 24 miles per hour-- is burned in mosaic of hopscotch patterns on land parcels of about 1,000 acres or less. New growth replaces the aged, parched brush, giving firefighters control points when a fire breaks out.

In response to the 1982 Anaheim fire that roared through a neighborhood of apartment complexes, most cities within the county passed ordinances to require fire retardant roofing materials for all newly constructed buildings.

What Homeowners Can Do to Reduce Brush Fire Hazards

Clear all dry weeds, brush, dead trees and rubbish located within 100 feet of structures, electrical equipment and wires.

Clear vegetation for a minimum of 10 feet along roads leading to the property.

Cut all overhead brush and trees for a distance of at least 13 feet, 6 inches above roads and structures and at least 10 feet above and around chimneys.

Maintain a 10-foot clearance around liquid propane gas tanks and install protection posts around the tanks to protect against vehicle damage.

Remove all leaves, pine needles and debris from roofs.

Place a spark arrester on all chimneys, and a screen with a 1/2-inch mesh.

Plant lawns, succulent ground covers, or other low-growing plants around all structures and water regularly.

Sources: California Department of Forestry, Orange County Fire Department

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