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Beating a Fire Before It Begins

October 08, 1992|RICHARD CORE

As fire roared through brush-covered hills near the North County community of Rainbow last week, it reduced 3,000 acres to ash, destroyed one home in Riverside County, and forced a temporary evacuation of about 40 residents.

The next day, about 30 miles south, fire raced through San Diego's Los Penasquitos Canyon Reserve, charring 600 acres and threatening a newly opened subdivision in Mira Mesa.

Once again, an extended spell of extremely hot, dry Southern California weather had taken its toll, turning canyons and hillsides of dense vegetation into tons of brittle, explosive fuel. A spark was all that was needed--in both cases from an arsonist--to set off the fire's ravenous appetite.

But damage at both locations could have been much worse.

Because precautions had been taken that slowed the fire and helped keep it at a distance--by Rainbow residents and the Mira Mesa subdivision's developer--firefighters were able to save homes and other valuable property.

With much of North County's new development pushing into previously open areas, fire officials say property owners should be increasingly aware that they need to start fighting potentially devastating fires long before a flame is ever struck.

Rainbow Fire Chief Fred Buck said one of the main reasons firefighters were able to keep property losses to a minimum was that homeowners kept brush and other volatile vegetation well away from buildings--at least 30 feet as fire officials recommend.

"Almost everybody has adequate clearance," Buck said. "Generally speaking, I think that's true of all the houses around here."

Tom Morris, a San Diego Fire Department spokesman, credited the clearing of brush with saving several of the newly constructed Mira Mesa residences.

"That made our job a lot easier," he said. "It reduced the damage quite a bit . . . . Keeping that fuel away from your house is the surest way of keeping your house intact."

The houses in the Rainbow community are in wild-land areas controlled by state fire ordinances. Each year, Buck said, local inspectors from the California Department of Forestry and the North County Fire Protection District check on areas that pose potential hazards and cite property owners who fail to clear away dangerous growth.

In North County's more urbanized areas, however, local fire departments are responsible for inspecting possible trouble areas.

Stephen Marvin, administrative deputy for the Encinitas Fire Protection District, said that as development has moved inland in recent years, the threat of property-damaging brush fires has increased. But homeowners in such areas can greatly lessen the chances of catastrophe striking "by doing a few very minimal things," Marvin said.

Some of the most devastating fires in California that have claimed hundreds of homes, cost billions of dollars and taken dozens of lives in the last 30 years have been followed by reports that the damage could have been limited by simple, preventive measures.

After the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the 1990 Santa Barbara fire and the 1985 Normal Heights fire in San Diego, for example, local governments instituted programs to clear away dense, dry vegetation from hillsides abutting residential areas and to restrict the use of wood shake shingles on roofs, both of which were factors cited for the rapid spread of all three blazes.

Assessing the hazards to a property is easy enough. All it takes is a quick survey either by the homeowner or by fire department officials who in many areas will visit a residence to size up unsafe conditions. One of the keys is to clear away natural grasses, weeds and brush, some of which in Southern California is filled with creosote, a highly flammable substance.

"Natural landscaping is very nice, and we're not saying you need to take every single bush out, but leave spaces," Marvin said. "Clean up all the debris under the bush so that the fire cannot just commute along all the dead leaves and branches. Get rid of all the real dense brush.

"We've seen more and more of the homes protected by ivy and things," Marvin said. "The dense green, while it may smolder, gives us a chance to stop the fire."

Installing fire-resistant, or succulent, plants around a property is relatively cheap. And there are numerous varieties, from ground covers to bushes to vines.

One of the least expensive but most effective is the ground cover commonly referred to as ice plant, which grows easily and requires limited watering. A flat at local nurseries will usually cost around $8 and can cover about 50 square feet.

"Ice plants are probably the best," Marvin said. "They have so much liquid in them that they will practically stop a fire."

When planting trees or large shrubs, they should be placed at least 18 feet apart. Avoid pines, eucalyptus and other varieties that are high in oil content. Be sure to prune dead limbs and low branches.

In many California fires, numerous homes have been lost from the top down--when wind-whipped embers ignited wood-shingled rooftops.

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