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O.C. Officials, Residents Gird for New Fires

October 25, 1994|MATT LAIT and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 3-million-gallon reservoir in Laguna Beach finally will be built. Two water-dumping helicopters are on their way. And firefighters throughout Orange County have been fitting their engines with everything from flame-retardant foam to swimming pool siphons.

As fire officials and county residents this week mark the one-year anniversary of last year's firestorm, they do so better prepared and better equipped to handle another massive blaze than at any point in county history.

"There's no better time to move than immediately following an incident," said Orange County Fire Chief Larry J. Holms.

Seizing on public concern, fire officials across the Southland have lobbied successfully for better equipment and pushed for stricter fire and building codes.

"It's always easier for politicians to make policy decisions when the public is supportive of that action," Holms said.

The massive destruction last year jolted the public awake, Holms said. Homeowners finally realized, he said, that they needed to make their homes fire safe and help prevent such disasters.

"Before the fire," Holms said, "it was pretty much falling on deaf ears. Now people are listening."

And it's about time. An increasing number of fire experts say that there will never be enough firefighters or enough new equipment to counterbalance the explosive potential energy that has been accumulating in the hills for several decades. Without clearing thousands of acres of land or restricting the flood of flatlanders into the foothills, more disastrous firestorms are inevitable, they say.

"Fires are burning more intensely than they have in the past, and the wild land fire problem is getting worse and worse," said Matt Mathes, the U.S. Forest Service's regional spokesman. "Suppression alone is no longer going to do the job of protecting people from fire."

Counties from Ventura to San Diego were hit by a series of large, destructive fires last October. In Orange County, three large fires combined to burn more than 36,000 acres and destroy or severely damage 469 structures. Two of the fires, the Stagecoach fire near Anaheim Hills and the Ortega fire in the eastern part of the county, were primarily wild brush fires. The third and most destructive blaze occurred in Laguna and left hundreds of people homeless.

Despite the devastation in the county, no lives were lost.

The infernos ignited controversy, bureaucratic second-guessing and ultimately fire-related legislation in Orange County and elsewhere.

"I think that if anything good came out of this tragedy it was the heightened awareness that this type of thing does indeed happen," Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner said recently. "The impact on Orange County was unprecedented. It forced us to look more closely at fuel modification plans, building codes, and made us do some soul-searching about our (fire) helicopter program."

In Los Angeles, where four firefighters were seriously burned in the brush above Chatsworth, the city Fire Department's focus has been on safety. The department has acquired 1,000 pairs of fireproof pants and will eventually get more, to go to all 2,800 firefighters. Also, the force will be fitted with new belts to carry protective foil blankets, and with helmet flaps that shield the neck. Throw in new canteens and first aid backpacks and the total cost of the new gear will run to $350,000.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department also helped broker a deal that brought highly touted Super Scooper airplanes to Southern California for testing this summer--an arrangement that officials hope to extend into next year. Unlike many other airborne firefighters, the plane can reload its 1,600-gallon water tank without landing.

Many of the fire victims who lost their homes in the firestorm changed their outlook on fire safety. Of homes that have been rebuilt, most bear no resemblance to the tinderboxes that existed before. Fire-retardant roofs, metal support beams, enclosed eaves and drought-resistant landscaping are the style du jour in Laguna Beach.

"This whole thing is still so stressful," said JoAnna Schoon, a resident of Mystic Hills in Laguna Beach who is rebuilding her home. "We're minimizing the amount of exterior wood showing, putting stucco on our eaves and other things to make our home more fire resistant." Schoon and her husband also are dropping a fire safe into their cement foundation for their valuables.

But Schoon says they have learned other lessons as well.

For example, she is more aware of vegetation overgrowth around her house and the fine print in fire insurance policies. And she is making plans about "what items to grab and where they are," should another fire break out.

Some homeowners are even discussing imposing an assessment tax on themselves to make sure that nearby brush is cut back far enough from their homes. No matter what their response, one thing is clear: The fire has left an indelible impression.

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