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Fire Risk Increased by Fuel, Terrain

Danger: Those living near wild lands are particularly vulnerable to fast-moving blazes. Heat and drought heighten the threat.

July 21, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could be a cigarette, flicked carelessly out a car window. A blue spray of sparks kicked up by a low-leaning motorcycle on a sharp mountain curve. An arsonist, an illegal campfire, a dry lightning strike on a lazy fall day.

This much is certain: One day, a fire will start in the majestic, jungle-thick forest ringing Lake Arrowhead. And if conditions are right--if the day is hot, if the Santa Ana winds are blowing, if the brush has been baked dry by the sun--one of Southern California's most beloved vacation spots will become a raging circle of fire.

"If a fire got going here ... it would be catastrophic," said Bob Hertel, an architectural inspector at Lake Arrowhead. Then he corrected himself: "It's not a matter of if," he said, "but when."

Ask any Southern California fire chief which places are at highest risk this summer, with conditions the driest on record, and he will answer that the risk is equally high wherever houses abut wild land. But some places, he might concede, are more equal than others. Dozens of communities in Southern California, Lake Arrowhead among them, have been built on a dare, in places where nature could readily reclaim them.

Firefighters weigh a range of factors--climate, topography, building styles, road width, fire history--as they consider which places are most vulnerable to, and least defensible from, fire.

Lake Arrowhead, where the forest has been allowed to grow unchecked since the area was clear-cut by loggers in the late 1800s, is near the top of many experts' lists of at-risk places. There, nearly all the danger signals converge.

Also at high risk is Topanga Canyon, where the Santa Ana wind can blow like a bellows and roads dotted with wooden houses snake up brush-choked ravines. So are most of the "front range" communities along the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains--places such as Redlands and Upland, Sierra Madre and Tujunga.

In Ventura County, Fire Chief Bob Roper worries especially about portions of the Ojai Valley, Camarillo Heights, Conejo Valley, Wildwood Park, Ventu Park and some of the hilly places where Thousand Oaks spills into brushland.

Capt. Stephen Miller of the Orange County Fire Department declined to single out any communities, saying all are at risk. But a map of the county's highest-risk areas shows hot spots abutting parts of Irvine, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Battalion Chief Mark Stormes of the Los Angeles Fire Department described his worst-case scenario: "A night-time, wind-driven, mountain-area fire. Everybody's home. Everybody's in bed."

Where could that happen? He pointed to the map, vast swaths of which were colored red for danger.

"All of the canyons," he said, "probably from the 405 to the Hollywood Freeway."

Asst. Chief Herbert Spitzer of the L.A. County Fire Department has his own mental list of disasters waiting to happen: Glendale, Pasadena, Claremont, La Verne, Malibu and Pomona are among the names on it.

Spitzer also has this nightmarish vision: A fire breaks out along the Golden State Freeway frontage of Griffith Park in Los Angeles. It spreads unchecked through rugged canyons up and over the top of the park, driven by strong Santa Ana winds. The wind shoots showers of glowing embers onto tightly packed neighborhoods in Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Hollywood. A wild-land fire becomes an urban conflagration

"That," said Spitzer, "wouldn't be a very friendly fire at all."

It would join a long list of unfriendly fires in California, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire to the 1993 blazes that swept through Southern California.

The worst was the Oakland Hills fire of October 1991. Ignited in brush, it blew through hillside neighborhoods that had long prided themselves on balancing urban life with nature. Within hours, 25 people were dead and nearly 3,000 homes had been destroyed.

The Oakland blaze prompted redrafting of building codes to make homes in fire-prone areas less likely to ignite. Along with the 1993 fires in Southern California, it also pushed people to reconsider their notions of beauty. Is manzanita beautiful or ominous when it nuzzles up to a wooden patio deck? What's lovelier, an overhanging fir or a firebreak? And it prompted the state to undertake the massive task of classifying the places in California at highest risk of wildfire. Portions of more than 100 cities or counties in California were designated as Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, roughly two-thirds of them in the five-county Southern California region. These places are generally held to more stringent building and zoning standards by local officials.

Such zoning is not, however, a foolproof guide. The assessments were made in the mid-1990s and have not, in many cases, been updated. And many jurisdictions were exempted because they already had tough fire-safety guidelines.

"As a result, true hazards throughout the state were not necessarily identified," according to the state's Field Hazard Zoning Field Guide, published in 2000.

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