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The Resurrection of Eaton Canyon

Destroyed by fire in 1993, the nature center has risen from the ashes. A wildfire analyst discusses its revival, the ecology of fire and how people can protect themselves.

May 14, 1996|Jane Spiller

In the nearly three years since firestorms swept across almost 200,000 acres in Southern California, the native landscape has regenerated and many homes lost have been rebuilt.

At Eaton Canyon Park above Pasadena, the fire that roared through the canyon destroyed the Nature Center; 150 other structures in the area were burned. Construction on a new, expanded center begins this summer with $800,000 in federal money and $200,000 from Proposition A, a 1992 county park bond issue.

More than $125,000 has been raised so far for displays and a fire ecology trail.

A wildfire safety panel created by the county has instituted a number of changes to better protect life and property. Most important, says Deputy Fire Chief Jimmie Ryland, is an improved brush clearance program with a central office. Defensible space around a home is the key advantage for surviving a fire, he said.

There are new requirements for double-pane glass and boxed or fire resistant eaves. "Flying decks" must be enclosed. The county also extended a ban on wood shakes and shingles to all high-hazard areas.

The most political issue--whether to require automatic interior sprinkler systems for new homes in hazardous fire areas more than three miles from a fire station--came before the Board of Supervisors last Thursday and was rescheduled for June 13.

Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Don Pierpont, a firefighter for 30 years and a wildfire behavior analyst who conducts controlled burns, talked with Jane Spiller.

Question: What was the situation at Eaton Canyon Park in the October 1993 fire?

Answer: Because Eaton Canyon was a nature center, it was left as nature would have it, with natural brush. It did not have much chance of surviving a fire.

I've calculated in the past that based on the fuel loading of that type of a hillside, the energy released is equal to that of a Hiroshima bomb every 30 seconds. One pound of that fuel has the same [heat value] as a pound of gasoline.

Q: What is the role of fire in the ecology of the Los Angeles area?

A: Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. Where more water is present up in Oregon you'll see moss growing over logs, and it eventually consumes them and turns the nutrients back into the soil to feed the next generation of trees.

In this Mediterranean-type ecosystem there's not enough moisture to recycle, so fire has become a natural element. Even before the Indians arrived here, fire was part of this environment, started by natural means through lightning storms.

There would be fires burning all year long, little ones here and there, and when the winds picked up they would spread and make a run here and there and wander off into the hills, and then they would die down. Soil samples taken from the Santa Monica Bay show ash deposits at various levels. Major fires occurred at 50- to 75-year intervals.

Eaton Canyon Park is a good opportunity for people to see what post-fire regeneration looks like--it's remarkable.

Q: Is it practical to prevent development in fire areas?

A: We've already built ourselves into the fire environment. We're not going to run all the people out of here and turn it back to nature. But any time we place humans out into this environment they become threatened by the inevitable fire that's going to occur.

The only thing we can do is mitigate the effects of the fire through designing appropriate structures and providing clearance. The principal cause of structural ignition is twofold: Flames lick right up on the house and come through the windows or get on combustible members; and ember implantation--that's the long-range one, where the embers drift out of the sky and get stuck in the combustible portion of the roof.

Reducing the amount of fuel around the house assures that the flames won't be big enough to reach the structure.

Q: Has the policy changed for rebuilding or new development in fire areas?

A: In L.A. County the policy has routinely said that any new construction, whether a rebuild or not, would have to meet current codes.

After the 1993 fire in some instances they backed off of those codes because of the trauma the property owners went through. On the east side of Eaton Canyon, in the Pasadena Glen area, under current regulations we would require 26-foot access roads, but the way things are built there, in some areas we are lucky if the road is 12 feet.

As for wood shakes and shingles, I've always considered that a self-leveling problem--it's either replace the roof or it's going to burn down. It's one or the other if you're anywhere close to a brush area.

Q: What is close?

A: Up to a mile away.

Public Places writer Jane Spiller welcomes suggestions on places of interest. Contact her c/o Next L.A. or by e-mail at:

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