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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Firefighters Are Forced to Make Indirect Attacks

If crews can't smother a blaze, they try to slow its destructive march until weather conditions turn in their favor. It can be frustrating work.

October 28, 2003|Louis Sahagun and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

They try to drown them, suffocate them and even slather them with foam, but try as they might, firefighters know the simple frustrating truth: Most of their efforts are futile when battling well-fed, wind-swept blazes such as the ones torching Southern California.

"When Mother Nature decides to do what Mother Nature has done this week, there's nothing we can do," said Bob Will, an air tanker manager for the U.S. Forest Service. "We're just running after it or running away from it."

Nonetheless, thousands of firefighters pressed forward Monday, using firefighting tactics that have been used for years. If they can't knock a fire out, they hope to hamper its destructive march until weather conditions turn in their favor.

Though firefighters haven't been able to prevent fires from overrunning hilltops and hundreds of homes, they have had some victories along the way. A community landmark, the Cliffhanger Restaurant in Crestline, was saved Sunday when firefighters covered it with protective gel made out of the same absorbent material used in baby diapers. The blaze surrounded the building but moved past without damaging it, much to the amazement and satisfaction of weary firefighters.

Ideally, firefighters try to smother a fire as early as possible so they can use what they refer to as the "direct attack," which essentially means dousing the blaze with water. However, that works best when flames are not too intense, said John Craney, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry.

When that approach fails or is not feasible, as was the case in Simi Valley, San Bernardino and San Diego, firefighters resort to an "indirect attack," Craney said.

The idea is to starve a fire by depriving it of fuel. In that mode, firefighters move out of the way and set traps for a blaze. Using axes, chainsaws and bulldozers, they clear brush and other flammable material in long paths that serve as firebreaks.

In fighting the Old fire in San Bernardino County, firefighters had hoped that California 18 would serve as a massive firebreak, or containment line, and impede the fire's progress up the mountain. On Monday, however, embers drifted across the road and ignited brush on the other side. Strike teams of firefighters swarmed the new outbreaks and, using a direct attack, quenched the fire with water. Fire officials, however, said Monday they believed the fire would ultimately cross the highway if winds changed direction.

One of the most effective but riskiest tactics used to battle large blazes is the backfire. "It's essentially fighting fire with fire," Craney said. "But it can be dangerous."

Backfires are small fires deliberately set by firefighters to devour fuel in the larger blaze's path and create a break line. The hope is the backfire will either stop the blaze or redirect it. The risk is that the backfire itself will blaze out of control.

After a backfire, or the building of a firebreak, fire retardants made from a mixture of water, fertilizer and red dye are often sprayed on the ground to further impede a wildfire's progress.

Firefighters in San Bernardino on Monday set some backfires with flare-like pistols, which shot firecrackers that exploded with showers of sparks.

The windy weather, however, has limited the effectiveness of the backfires as well, officials said. "The winds are a nemesis," said Jeff Wenger, a spokesman for the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department. "They're squirrelly and quite powerful."

The strong winds have largely deprived firefighters of their air attack, in which helicopters and air tankers drop thousands of gallons of water or flame retardants on fires. The water drops are more successful at slowing and cooling a fire, rather than extinguishing it.

"We ground the fleet when the winds get up to 40 miles per hour," Craney said. On Monday, some aircraft were back in service.

When battling big, wind-charged blazes, firefighters focus on protecting communities and lives, instead of trying to smother the fires. They look for ways to save houses, a neighborhood at time.

And, when there is a lull in the wind and heat, they plot ways to attack.

They send out reconnaissance teams on the ground and in the air to find the best areas to construct firebreaks and set backfires.

Firefighters can become victims of their own successes. Each time they put out a small blaze, unburned brush and timber are left to fuel future fires. In Lake Arrowhead and surrounding communities, for example, an estimated 1 million to 2 million dead trees litter the forest.

Robert H. Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland who has studied wildfires, said that when blazes get out of control, like the ones in Southern California, firefighters might as well get out of the way. "It's pretty hopeless sometimes," he said.

Nelson said firefighting strategies and tactics become symbolic gestures in the face of an overwhelming foe.

"Some of the things we do are public ritual," he said. "It's basically impossible for a politician to stand up and say not to fight a fire. Even when it's useless."

For their part, firefighters are not ready to give up, though they know that, to a large degree, they are at the whim of the fire and the weather.

"I'm in awe, just in awe," Will, the air tanker manager with the U.S. Forest Service, said of the fire. "We're just trying to pick up the little pieces around the edges. It can be very frustrating."

Pat O'Bannon, deputy incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service for the Old fire, said it's hard not to get discouraged when fighting a relentless wildfire. "I'm not a pessimist, but I am a realist," he said. "We need a couple of days, and we don't have a couple of days."

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Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.

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