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'70s Study Warned of Fire Threat : Disasters: Residents slowly abandoned precautions that were recommended after a blaze claimed 37 homes in same area more than 20 years ago.

October 25, 1991|DAN MORAIN and JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Among other things, the general plan recommended the creation of "effective fuel breaks between urban and nonurban areas" and the use of fire-resistant vegetation and native plants by hillside homeowners.

Initially, Gibson Haskell said, residents responded aggressively with images of the 1970 blaze fresh in their minds. But by the late 1970s, "people got less serious about it," she said.

"I wish to hell people had a longer institutional memory," Gibson Haskell said.

As officials anxiously monitored weather reports predicting rains, work crews scattered grass seed across hillsides stripped naked by the flames. Others began constructing wooden and mesh flood control barriers to trap soil and rocks that could be swept loose by a deluge and imperil homes below.

Soil experts said the fire destroyed not only trees, shrubs and other vegetation, but also their roots--a key anchor for topsoil.

"I understand there already has been some erosion just with the water used to put out the fire," said Albert Cerna of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. "We're really concerned."

At the city's emergency assistance center, which opened Thursday, more than 130 people sought help, most of them seeking housing or aid with insurance forms.

Donations continued to flood a relief fund and the Salvation Army was fielding offers of shelter, food, psychological counseling and assorted other forms of help from around the state.

Perhaps the most unusual offer of assistance, said Salvation Army spokesman Ken Mercer, came from a masseuse who "offered her time to the firemen."

Morain reported from Oakland, Warren from Los Angeles.

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