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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : Preparing for the Next One : Fire Agencies Add Equipment and Stress Safety, but Experts Say It Won't Be Enough


A thousand pairs of fireproof pants have been delivered to the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Two gleaming, banana-yellow Super Scooper airplanes are poised for action on the Van Nuys Airport Tarmac. And hundreds of fire engines from Malibu to Mission Viejo are being fitted with everything from flame-retardant foam to swimming pool siphons.

A firefighting arms race of sorts has swept cities and counties from Ventura to San Diego since 17 fires laid siege to the region a year ago. The next time firefighters go to war with a merciless mix of wind and fire, they undoubtedly will be better armed.

The fire battleground also will be a marginally more hospitable place--with some improved water systems, a few wider roads and building codes that will make new homes in some areas more resistant to fire.

But an increasing number of wild land fire experts say there will never be enough firefighters or sparkling new equipment to counterbalance the explosive potential energy that has been accumulating in the hills for several decades. Without clearing thousands of acres 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."

Decades of fire safety programs, exemplified by the sagebrush wisdom of Smokey the Bear, have left more grass, scrub brush and dead wood on the ground to burn when fires finally do rage. Routine flare-ups that kept coastal brushland well manicured for thousands of years have now given way to uncontrollable firestorms.

It is no coincidence, experts say, that the state suffered three of its most destructive fire seasons in just four years: the 1990 Santa Barbara, 1991 Oakland and 1993 Southern California fires.

But reducing construction and removing chaparral can be both politically and practically hazardous. As a result, fire departments have spent much of the year girding for the next great fire.

At the Los Angeles City Fire Department--which had four men seriously burned in the brush above Chatsworth--the focus has been on safety. Besides the new fireproof pants, which will eventually go to all 2,800 firefighters, the force will be fitted with new belts to carry protective foil blankets and helmet flaps that shield the neck. Throw in new canteens and first-aid backpacks and the total cost of the new gear will run $350,000.

In Orange County, where three blazes scorched thousands of acres, the Board of Supervisors has approved the purchase of two new helicopters that can dump up to 4,000 gallons of water an hour. Federal grants could help purchase other equipment--distributors for fire-retardant foam, portable pumps and an improved communications system.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department plans to install the foam sprayers on 70% of its 170 engines and to place "eductors"--which siphon water from pools and wells--on its entire fleet.

The department also helped broker a deal that brought the highly touted Super Scooper 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. It was deemed "very impressive" in its first live action, helping to quickly knock down a tumbleweed fire last week in the Antelope Valley.

Arrangements have also been made to ensure that already stockpiled equipment gets to fires as quickly as possible. New guidelines will ensure that giant C-130 National Guard planes used for firefighting can be staffed and equipped in 13 hours, instead of the 24 hours it took in the past, according to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. And agencies will be allowed to rent water trucks from private firms in the next firestorm, without adhering to a past policy that required department officials to canvass the entire state first in an effort to borrow the tanker trucks from other public agencies.

Improvements in the region's water systems are more problematic--with some isolated upgrades on the way but with many neighborhoods still facing the prospect that, when fire strikes, fire hoses could again run dry.

In Laguna Beach, the City Council this year finally ended a long-running debate and approved construction of a 3-million gallon reservoir at the city's highest elevation. Many residents had problems with the aesthetics of the reservoir. Fire officials said that even a new reservoir would not completely resolve the community's water supply problems. But the loss of water a year ago, when 366 homes burned, turned the debate in favor of the $6-million project.

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