Claim: Yorba Linda slopes left dry by city fueled fire

A month before the Freeway Complex fire burned through the Yorba Linda community in November, the city stopped watering some city-owned easements in an effort to reduce their liability from landslides on the watered slopes. Now at least one resident is suing them, claiming the dry vegetation in the easement caused their house to burn during the fire.

Here is an excerpt from the Orange County Register:

In October, the city sent out two notices to the 13 homes that were directly affected by the dry easements – spanning parts of Hidden Hills Road, Green Mount Place and High Tree Circle. The first notice told residents the water was already off and the second stated the city’s intention to completely abandon the easements.

Why? To prevent any more lawsuits against the city for land movement and inverse condemnation in the Hidden Hills area, officials said.

“The city is liable because we maintain the easements by watering them,” interim City Manager Bill Kelly said in October. “Water may not have been the issue in those suits, but because of that we still get sued. The city is the closest deep pocket.”

During the past four years, the city spent $4.8 million on litigation costs, according to the city attorney. To cut costs and eventually lift its responsibility of the slopes, the city started taking steps to completely abandon the easements.

Residents were also told they could not water the easements. If they did, they would be violating municipal code.

“We’re asking residents not to water. If vegetation starts to die we will clear the area of dead plants to prevent a fire hazard,” Mark Stowell, the public works director and city engineer, said in October.

The Johnsons’ claimed the city did not clear the dead brush around the easement, according to Traut.

A view of a charred landscape easement above the Hidden Hills Road coul-de-sac. The city stopped watering this easement a month before the Freeway Complex Fire. Below is what is left of a home at 22590 Hidden Hills Road. ERIN WELCH, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Orange County Fire Authority and city staffers were checking on the slopes frequently before the fire, Stowell said.

“Nothing had died out yet, and there was no need to clear brush,” he said. “The easements up there now are green. In fact, it was the easements we kept watering that got completely burned.”

About two weeks before the fire, OCFA did not declare the easements as a hazard, officials said.

“We were monitoring those slopes regularly,” Stowell said.

Group organizes to support Rx burns on Mendocino NF

A group calling themselves “Restore the Mendo” has formed in an effort to promote the use of prescribed fires on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California. Even though the Forest is currently doing some burning, the group would like to see the number of acres burned increase substantially.

Some of the organizations supporting the group are:

Mendocino County Board of Supervisors
California Wilderness Coalition
Environmental Protection Information Center
Forest Guild
The Wilderness Society
Willits Environmental Center

I talked with Rich Fairbanks, the Fire Program Associate for the Wilderness Society’s California-Nevada Region, about their support for the “Restore the Mendo” initiative. He worked in fire management for the U.S. Forest Service, including several Hot Shot Crews, before signing up with the Wilderness Society. I asked him why they began this push for more prescribed fire, and doesn’t the “Mendo” already do this?

Rich said that yes, they do, but of the 300,000 acres of mixed conifer on the forest, they only have the funding and personnel to accomplish 2,000-5,000 acres a year. One fire manager on the forest told Rich that he would like to see them burn 20,000 acres each year.

The group’s strategy is to convince politicians to increase the funding for the prescribed fire program on the Mendocino.

From my experience, when you are beginning to restore a forest by re-introducing fire, you will need to conduct multiple burns in the first 20-30 years before you can then enter a maintenance phase with less frequent burns. So 20,000 acres a year on a 300,000 acre forest seems conservative.

The Mendocino forest is one of the least complicated locations for prescribed fire, in that there is little urban interface, and population centers are far enough way that smoke management is not as big a concern as it is in some areas.

I have burned in one location where the fireline on the burn was adjacent to the backyards of homes, literally 30-feet from houses. It can be a luxury, relatively speaking, to have the nearest house miles away.

The group has produced a 30-second TV ad featuring a local rancher that began running November 12 on stations in northern California. Here is an image from the ad:
I began participating on prescribed fires in the 1970s, and if you are reading this blog, you are probably also a believer in the process. Forests are going to burn eventually. It is not a question of IF, but WHEN. We can control that burning in prescribed fires and do it on our own terms, or we can elect to do nothing and let nature (and careless fire-starting humans) do it for us with unplanned ignitions…sometimes with catastrophic consequences and/or massive amounts of smoke.

Fire near Annapolis burns 3 homes

A fire in Anne Arundel County near Annapolis, MD, started under a home, then spread to a second and eventually burned a third home. The community, which has no fire hydrants, is near the Chesapeake Bay and a creek, but firefighters had trouble getting water on the fast moving fire, which melted vinyl siding on houses across the street.

They tried to draft water out of the bay, but it was low tide and were only able to get sediment. Fire boats were eventually used to pump water out of a creek.

Some of the residents are criticizing the actions of the fire department, saying that it took too long to get water on the fire.

WJZ television in Baltimore has a video news report about the fire.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Baltimore Sun:

The homes on Shore Drive are tucked into a peninsula that offers striking views of the Chesapeake, from the cattails along the shore to the Bay Bridge in the distance. But the geography that makes the secluded neighborhood so alluring also presented obstacles to efforts to save a line of houses from a wind-whipped, five-alarm fire early yesterday.

A lack of hydrants and narrow roads left tanker trucks trying to squeeze into the neighborhood and bring water from a nearby school. A truck initially struggled to pull water from the bay, though boats were later summoned from southern Anne Arundel County to draw from a creek.

“We had water, water everywhere, but none to pump onto the fire,” said Nancy Plaxico, a neighbor whose gray siding buckled in the heat of the fire across the street.

Damage was estimated at more than $2 million, with two homes destroyed and four others damaged – one of them severely – in the community of Oyster Harbor south of Annapolis. Nobody was killed in the fire.

As firefighters tramped through the smoking ruins yesterday afternoon, some neighbors questioned whether crews acted quickly enough.

But officials said firefighters did their best in challenging conditions.

“Without question, we could have lost up to six homes this evening were it not for the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who placed themselves in extraordinary danger to save three homes,” Anne Arundel County Fire Chief John R. Ray said in a statement.

Crews were hampered by strong winds that pushed flames across a street, where they burned through a fire hose, damaged a firetruck and momentarily trapped firefighters, Fire Department spokesman Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia said.

Investigators had not yet determined the cause of the fire but said that it did not appear suspicious.

Neighbor Jimmy Sturman said he and his wife were getting ready for bed when they saw thick, black smoke billowing from a house across the street. The Sturmans helped a neighbor and her two school-age daughters to safety and alerted a second neighbor that his home had started to catch fire.

Crews arrived within nine minutes of receiving the call and quickly radioed for backup, Tobia said. When firefighters arrived, the first home was engulfed in fire, and flames were leaping from the second, Tobia said. Sparks were shooting from two 250-gallon tanks of propane in front of the second house, and firefighters focused on preventing the tanks from exploding and from causing the fire to spread to homes across the street, he said.

More than 100 firefighters from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis and Queen Anne’s and Calvert counties worked with the Anne Arundel crews to bring the fire under control about 12:20 a.m., about two hours after it was reported.

Neighbors said fire crews seemed disorganized and seemed to take too much time before shooting water onto the burning homes. Crews initially tried to pump water from the bay, but it was low tide, and they pulled mostly sediment, Tobia said.

Thanks, Chuck, for the tip.

Medal of Valor awarded to CalFire employees

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday awarded the Governor’s Medal of Valor to six CalFire employees:

  • John Guhl, of Sacramento, Silver Award: On May 18, 2008, stopped a disoriented, male driver from injuring himself and others with his vehicle.
  • Wesley D. Grim, of Visalia, Gold Award: On May 31, 2007, attempted to rescue an infant from a burning home.
  • Carl Schwettmann, Jr., of El Cajon, Gold Award: On October 21, 2007, rescued a missing firefighter during the Harris Fire.
  • Eric R. Ayers, of Susanville, Gold Award: On December 28, 2007, rescued a woman from drowning when her car landed upside down in a river.
  • James F. Allen and Franklin T. Johnson, of Mariposa, Gold Award: On February 2, 2008, rescued a young boy from a burning mobile home.
  • Corey Call, of St. Helena, Gold Award: On May 13, 2008, attempted to rescue a woman from a burning vehicle.


South Africa fire update

Photo: Glenn Poley

Photo: Wayne Mongie

As the fire season in North America winds down (except Californians say they have a never-ending fire season) the southern hemisphere is entering theirs. Here is an update from News24 on the fires in South Africa that Wildfire Today told you about yesterday.

Cape Town – A fire was still raging in the Hottentots Holland mountain range in the Western Cape on Wednesday morning, according to disaster officials.

“There are still hot spots on the mountain range,” said Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s Disaster Risk Management Centre.

“They will try to extinguish the fire by today [Wednesday] or tomorrow [Thursday].”

The fire on the edges of Gordon’s Bay residential areas was under control and firefighters were now focusing on the mountain range which is part of the Cape Fold Belt in the Western Cape. Solomons-Johannes said weather officials had indicated that strong gale-force southeasterly winds should be expected on Wednesday, associated with very windy and dry conditions.

“All 28 fire stations are on readiness,” said Solomons-Johannes.

The fire started on Monday, causing dozens of Gordon’s Bay residents to be evacuated. Several firemen have been treated for smoke inhalation.


It wasn’t funny at all. It was actually a terrifying experience when huge clouds of smoke came closer and he and his 87-year-old mother had to hurriedly evacuate a Gordon’s Bay holiday flat, said funnyman and filmmaker Leon Schuster.

It was only hours after they had arrived in Cape Town from Bloemfontein for a family holiday.

Schuster said he had never seen such a sight – the top part of the mountain actually looked quite beautiful late at night, with “large stretches of orange flames spitting forwards”.

The view from their hired apartment in Protea Street, right up against the mountain, was phenomenal, said Schuster. The problem was keeping the smoke from their eyes.

He was unsure at what time firefighters informed him and his mother, Jessie, that they had to evacuate the apartment. But it was dark outside due to the smoke, which made him realise why they’d been asked to leave.

As the usual road was closed, they had to use a detour which took about an hour-and-a-half, said Schuster. When they finally arrived at the bottom parking area in Gordon’s Bay and he got out, he was blown back about four steps.

“I promise. And I’m not a terribly light fellow.”

The gale-force wind blew his favourite black cap with white edging into the sea.

“It is amazing how quickly the wind drives the fire,” he said on Tuesday while heading to the airport to fetch one of his twins. “I only realised (on Monday) how exposed one is when living against a mountain.”

He said he saw how the flames reached the lower wooden deck of a holiday home, and how firefighters tried to stop them.

Washington: new public lands commissioner/firefighter/molecular biologist

Peter Goldmark, who has been a wildland firefighter with the Okanogan County Fire District No. 8 in Washington for over 30 years, won the election to unseat two-term incumbent Doug Sutherland for the position of state Commissioner of Public Lands, which oversees the Department of Natural Resources and their firefighting organization. As Wildfire Today told you earlier, Goldmark has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and conducts wheat breeding research.

The Seattle Times has an article about some of the issues facing the new Commissioner. Here is an excerpt.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s new public-lands commissioner says he wants the state to respond more quickly to wildfires.

As a longtime volunteer firefighter, Peter Goldmark says he understands how red tape and unclear protocols can slow fire response.

“It’s obvious that we need to put out the fire first and squabble about who is paying for it later,” Goldmark says. During his campaign, he hammered the state’s slow response in a Spokane-area wildfire last summer that destroyed 12 homes and caused $50 million in property damage.

In an Associated Press interview earlier this week outlining his plans, Democrat Goldmark said he’ll do things differently than his Republican predecessor, Doug Sutherland, when he takes over in January as head of the Department of Natural Resources.