Lessons learned about fire resistant home construction

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I have DirectTV and receive the local Los Angeles stations. I have to admit it was fascinating watching the live coverage of the southern California fires, especially the live helicopter video in high definition. Mesmerizing, for a firefighter.

Listening to the live on-air commentators was interesting….some of them are pretty good and others…. not so much. It has to be extremely difficult doing live coverage…of anything…. for hours and days on end. A couple of the helicopter pilots who were doing live commentating were pretty knowledgeable. Some of them have been watching vegetation fires burn from 5,000 feet for a long time. You can’t help but learn something about fire behavior and aerial firefighting after years at that vantage point.

The live anchors frequently talked about defensible space and were always amazed at why some houses burned and others didn’t in the same neighborhood. They frequently mentioned tile roofs, and they were stunned when they saw some houses burning that had them. As if… having a tile roof and maybe cutting some weeds was all you needed to do to fireproof your home.

We need to emphasize to homeowners that a having a fire resistant roof is only one of many considerations for a homeowner. We should also educate the on-air personalities so they can talk intelligently on the subject when homes are burning. It is a teachable moment we should take advantage of.


The “Randomness” of homes that burned or didn’t burn was often mentioned by the news anchors. It’s not randomness, it is science, the laws of physics, weather, fuels, topography, home construction, and fire preparedness. It is also the availability of firefighting resources and infrastructure. Like… is there water in the water system? It’s a question that is being asked after the water system failed as mega-mansions burned west of Corona, CA the other day. But I digress.

Some firefighters and fire groupies refer to fire as “The Dragon”, as if fighting fire were like fighting a living, breathing, thinking animal. If it were, fire would be totally unpredictable, and getting burned by the “dragon” would be…. almost random. But it’s not. It is based on the laws of physics.

Firefighters who educate themselves, have an intellectual curiosity, and take advantage of opportunities to really observe fire, can learn to predict what it will do….and how to keep themselves and others safe. Be envious of that TV news helicopter pilot. Some firefighters naturally pick up this knowledge through taking advantage of opportunities and by osmosis. Others, who may otherwise be intelligent, don’t.


A friend sent me an article that is in today’s edition of the Christian Science Monitor about the lessons learned in southern California regarding fire resistant construction. Here is an excerpt from the article:

LOS ANGELES – The dramatic news footage depicting towering walls of flame, exhausted firefighters, and plumes of smoke don’t tell the story. Tearful, day-after tours of the rubble do.

That’s when local newsmen with video cameras walk house to house and ask the troubling question: Why was this structure spared when the homes on both sides were incinerated?

Sometimes, even bigger questions nag. Why was this neighborhood obliterated while that one was passed over unscathed?

The facts are slowly emerging. Aside from the heroic efforts of firefighters, improved logistical planning by local officials, increased funding for better trucks, planes, flame retardant and other tools, a key factor in fighting fires here is the proactive initiative of homeowners.

Stricter enforcement of codes adopted by scores of communities in the past two decades has residents clearing out trees, brush, and shrubbery next to their homes. Also, homeowners and communities are taking voluntary preventive measures such as practicing fire-resistant construction.

New California building codes, which took effect in January, ban wood siding and wood-shake roofs from new construction in fire-prone areas. But residents in existing homes are also replacing wood shingles with cement tile and wood siding with stucco as well as rebuilding wood porches to be more fireproof. Entire developments have adopted so-called shelter-in-place construction.

The newer luxury development at Olinda Ranch, near Brea in Orange County, for instance – about 660 homes built with cement-tile roofs, stucco walls, and sprinkler systems – escaped with minimal charring, while the adjacent community of Oak Ridge lost nearly 500 homes. Many of those homes were in a mobile-home park, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for a new review of state building codes…….

Park Service employee catches fatal plague from mountain lion

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This happened in October, 2007, but the word is only now getting out.

From ReporterNews:

PHOENIX — A wildlife biologist who was never trained about disease risks he could encounter while on the job died from the plague after handling a deceased lion without protective gear, according to a federal report. The report by a National Park Service review board said Eric York, 37, didn’t wear gloves or a protective respirator in October 2007 while handling and performing a necropsy on a mountain lion that had died of the plague.

York’s supervisors didn’t monitor his activities or review job hazards, he was never trained on the potential of catching diseases and the Park Service didn’t formally assess the danger he and other workers could encounter on the job, according to the report, released Tuesday.

York worked in the park’s cougar collaring program and fell ill days after he used a locator beacon to track a mountain lion that had stopped moving.

He recovered the body, took it to his home at Grand Canyon National Park and did a necropsy in his garage. Several days later, be began feeling ill and went to a clinic.

A physician suspected flu and wasn’t told of York’s regular exposure to wild animals. The report noted that workers and medical personnel should be trained to ask about possible exposures when seeking or giving medical help.

York was found dead in his home six days after retrieving the dead animal.

Deputy park superintendent Palma Wilson acknowledged Tuesday that the agency made mistakes.

“There were protocols in place, but we were not necessarily ensuring that those protocols and safety standards were being followed,” Wilson said.

The report was completed in May, although it was just made public. It recommends a series of changes to ensure worker safety.

“As soon as we got the initial report back from the Board of Review we started implementing those recommendations,” Wilson said. “This was a tragic death, but if some good could come from it, it would be that we can get the word out, we can get the safety protocols out so that no one else has to go through this.”

An average of 13 plague cases are reported in the United States each year.

Wildfire news, November 19, 2008

Photos of southern California fires

The Lassie, Get Help blog has some great photos of the fires in southern California.

600 people evacuate from fire in Hawaii

A vegetation fire on the island of Lanai caused 600 people to evacuate from a hotel and begin to flee the island by boats. The 300 acre fire, pushed by 40 mph winds, threatened the Four Seasons Resort and other areas on the island.

At least four boats loaded with evacuees left the island headed for Maui and Lahaina, but the fire situation eased and the boats were later recalled.

The five firefighters on Lanai had their hands full with this fire. They were eventually joined by 16 firefighters from other islands.

Students’ bonfire caused Tea fire


Firefighters working on the Tea fire on the Westmont College campus gather their equipment.

The Santa Barbabra County Sheriff’s office said that an abandoned bonfire built by a group of students caused the Tea fire near Montecito and Santa Barbara. The fire destroyed 210 homes, injured 20 people, and burned about 2,000 acres.

A tipster led investigators to the bonfire where 10 people had been partying in an area known as the “Tea House” the night before the fire started. About 13 hours after the students left, embers remaining in the bonfire, encouraged by winds that gusted to 70 mph, started the Tea fire which was reported at 5:45 p.m.

The students left the area between 3 and 5 a.m. Thursday and thought they had extinguished the fire. All ten of the men and women, aged 18-22, who attended the bonfire have been identified by investigators, but their names and the school they attend have not been released. Prosecutors are deciding whether to charge them with crimes.

Westmont College, a Christian university with 1,200 students, sits immediately below the mountain ridge where the Teahouse is located. The fire burned through the campus, destroying the Psychology building, Math building, Physics building and three dozen Clark Hall dorm rooms. The off-campus homes of 14 professors also burned.

Wildfire news, November 18, 2008

Update on southern California fires

Most of the 50,000 evacuees have been able to return to their homes in the areas burned by the three huge fires. Thanks to diminishing winds, and extraordinary efforts by firefighters, the spread of the fires has been slowed and containment percentages are increasing. However record high temperatures and single-digit humidities are kept the fires alive over the last couple of days. But conditions will moderate today thanks to a weak on-shore breeze.

As far as we know there have been no deaths or major injuries in any of the fires, but six firefighters were injured on the Freeway fire and 5 were injured on the Sayre fire.



Kazaam, a Los Angeles search dog, rests after examining the destruction at the Oakridge mobile home community.

Residents of the Oak Ridge mobile home park, where almost 500 homes burned, were bused into the park yesterday to get their first looks at the devastation. The buses made brief stops so residents whose homes were still intact could collect medication or other essential items before returning to an evacuation center at Sylmar High School. The residents were not allowed to sift through the ruins of the burned homes because the cadaver-sniffing dogs were still searching the area to make sure no one had died in the fire. The fire destroyed 484 of their homes in the park but firefighters were able to save 120.

Though only about 360 of the park’s estimated 1,700 residents have so far come forward, authorities say they had no reason to believe anyone died. Search crews have scoured the wreckage with cadaver dogs in the last two days but found no bodies.

The Sayre fire has burned 11,207 acres and is 64% contained. It is still active on the northeast perimeter south of Placerita Canyon. The fire is creeping down slope with upslope runs in some of the canyons.


This fire, 75% contained now, destroyed approximately 155 residences. It has burned 28,889 acres.


This fire which burned 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, was fully contained Monday night.

LA Mayor “Greatful” for Obama’s wildfire support

President-elect Barack Obama called Los Angeles Mayor Antonia Villaraigosa and Governor Schwarzenegger to express his support for the wildfire situation in southern California.

On Obama’s old campaign web site he is asking people to help. It says in part:

“… Throughout the campaign, we saw time and again that when ordinary people act together, they can make a huge difference. To help those in need, visit CaliforniaVolunteers.org

Arsonists and others who started fires

There is a surprising amount of news on the legal front today about people who started wildland fires.

1. Boy arrested for starting Gap fire

From the Daily Sound:

A 16-year-old boy was arrested on arson-related charges connected to last July’s Gap Fire, Santa Barbara County Fire officials said.

The blaze broke out on July 1 near the Lizard’s Mouth area of the Los Padres National Forest. Twenty-eight days and $20 million later, the fire was contained. The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of residents living near the foothills above Goleta.

Though the Gap Fire didn’t burn any homes, officials fear the brunt of the fire’s wrath could be felt this winter via widespread flooding. The lack of vegetation in the foothills and thick sediment in the creeks, combined with heavy winter rains, could cause severe damage to property, officials fear.

The boy is being held in a juvenile detention center in Santa Maria. Officials said more details will be released as they become available.

2. Homeless man sentenced for starting Day and Ellis fires

From the LA Times:

A mentally ill homeless man was sentenced Monday to 45 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution for starting two wildfires in 2006 and 2002 that burned more than 162,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest.

A self-described nature lover, Steven Emory Butcher, 50, was convicted in February of igniting the monthlong Day fire in 2006 that injured 18 people, destroyed 11 structures and cost more than $100 million to suppress, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. He had been burning debris on Labor Day in Piru Canyon, where he had set up a campsite.

The jury also convicted Butcher of starting the 70-acre Ellis fire four years earlier, about two miles southeast of where the Day Fire began.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said “the likelihood of [Butcher] being able to meet that restitution payment is extremely slim. But we’ll do everything we can to recover whatever we can from him.”

Mrozek said his office “wanted to send a message to people that if you’re engaged in this type of activity, you may be held liable.”

Butcher was found guilty of two felony counts of starting fires and three misdemeanor counts of allowing a fire to escape his control, violating restrictions by building a fire on federal forest land and smoking in a federal forest.

“If I would have been on the jury, I would have found myself guilty too,” Butcher told U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank.

3. Two plead guilty to arson in Eastern Idaho

From KPVI.com

Two Idaho Falls residents have pled guilty to arson in setting a wildfire that occurred on public lands in Eastern Idaho in 2003.

On November 5, 2008, Brad Sims, 33, pled guilty in federal court to one felony count for setting a wildfire. On November 12, 2008, Jonathan Barrow, 28, pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of setting a fire. The lesser charge for Barrow resulted from his early cooperation.

Sentencing for both individuals is scheduled for February 9, 2009, at the federal courthouse in Pocatello.

The 2,766 acre wildfire, which was started on July 19, 2003, burned a five-mile section of utility poles. It was started at mile marker 282 on U.S. Highway 20 between Idaho Falls and Arco. The federal government will seek restitution for damages to utilities and public lands. The amount will be determined by the judge at sentencing.

“STARFIRE”: New tool to analyze fire risks and benefits

We can add another tool to the long list of programs that fire managers can use to help make decisions. Here are some excerpts from a news release from Colorado State University.

The system, known as Starfire, or Strategic Treatment Assessment Response Spectrum and Fire, is the first of its kind to generate fuel treatment priorities across an entire planning unit or national park; address appropriate management response – assessing when and where to encourage or suppress fires; and the first to address strategic smoke management where communities and local air quality can be adversely affected.

“Federal agencies now have access to a powerful tool that is easy to use in the heat of battle or in long-term fire planning to address environmental compliance. By integrating fire effects, fuels and smoke programs, federal fire agencies can now assess action options more quickly and effectively. ”

Once all of the data is compiled and properly assessed, Rideout and Wei develop a series of maps that support collaborative decision-making and inter-agency cooperation.

“Starfire is primarily designed to provide strategic-level fire risk and benefits information used in long-term fire management and planning. However, after a lightening strike causes a fire, managers can also use it to do a quick prediction of the potential consequences of the specific fire,” said Wei, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship.

First developed and tested at the Tehipite wildfire in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California this summer, Starfire contributed to a “landmark cooperative decision,” according to Jeff Manley, National Park Service official and CSU College of Natural Resources alumnus. Starfire is set for wider deployment to assess Yellowstone as the next national park and with additional funding from the Bureau of Land Management to use the system in other Western states.

Fire videos

Here is a video shot by firefighters of the DC-10 air tanker making a drop. Very Nice. 1 min. & 13 sec.

(videos no longer available)

Having trouble lighting your burn piles? Here’s the tool you need. The video is 23 seconds long.

Here is a cool video of civilians driving through the Freeway fire on highway 91 with fire on both sides… before they closed the highway. Listening to the reactions of the passengers is fun–they are having a great time. This is in Southern California near Corona on November 15. 1 min. & 16 sec. Warning: you might hear a couple of 4-letter words.

This is not exactly a “fire video” but you will enjoy it. John Hodgman, aka “PC” from the Get a Mac campaign plays “Tonight You Belong to Me” on a ukulele at a recent event promoting his book, “More Information Than You Require“. He’s accompanied by Jonathan Coulton on guitar.

Wildfire news, November 17, 2008

The debate about the use of retardant continues

As you probably know, the group “Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics” has a lawsuit against the U. S. Forest Service concerning the use of retardant on fires. In fact, for a while there was speculation that Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey might end up in jail.

The case is still working its way through the court system. In the meantime, the New York Times has a article about retardant. Here is an excerpt.

In the federal lawsuit in Montana, the Forest Service is being sued by a group of current and former employees and others who are demanding that the agency conduct a comprehensive environmental study of the impact of retardant under the Endangered Species Act. The suit cites a 2002 retardant drop on a river in central Oregon that killed 20,000 fish.

Current federal policy encourages pilots not to drop retardant within 300 feet of a body of water, but it allows for exceptions if flying conditions require it or if lives or property are in danger. By 2011, according to officials with the Forest Service in Montana, the most common type of retardant will have lower amounts of ammonia and will therefore be less harmful to fish and aquatic environments. Private companies have also used other chemicals to develop gels and foams that are popular among some firefighting agencies, though retardant is used by most.

The Forest Service says that the number of cases it has found where retardant affected waterways is so small — 14 out of thousands of retardant drops since 2000 — that mitigation measures already in place suffice.

In January, the judge in the Montana case, Donald W. Molloy, threatened to jail the head of the Forest Service, Mark Rey, and to halt its use of retardant because it did not respond to court orders on time. After a hearing the next month, Judge Molloy decided against jailing Mr. Rey and allowed the use of retardant to continue. But Judge Molloy let the case proceed, and last month the plaintiffs asked him to make a decision in the case.

“The chance of some stream being hit by retardant is virtually certain, and so, of course, you have to consider the consequences,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the group that brought the suit, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “It’s already happened 14 times.”

Montana fire contractor convicted; lied about pack test

From the Great Falls Tribune:

HELENA — A man who contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires in 2003 awaits sentencing for telling the agency incorrectly that personnel he provided had passed a mandatory physical fitness test.

A federal jury last week convicted Bitterroot Valley resident Jay M. Gasvoda of making false statements to a federal agency. The conviction, handed down in U.S. District Court in Missoula, likely will be appealed after Gasvoda is sentenced Feb. 6, defense attorney Martin Judnich said.

“I never lied about a thing,” Gasvoda said in a telephone interview Friday. “I was set up by some people that I fired.” Any inaccuracies in his contract information were unintentional, he said.

The Forest Service requires firefighters to have passed a fitness test [pack test] by walking three miles in 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound backpack. They also must complete survival instruction.

Comment on Quadrennial Fire Review

Until November 30th you can comment on the (wildland fire) Quadrennial Fire Review. Send your comments to Achyde@aol.com

Here is the way the review is described in the introduction to the document:

In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service, the four U. S. Department of Interior agencies and their state, local, and tribal partners that constitute the wildland fire community chartered the first Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR). Like its predecessor, this 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review is designed as a strategic evaluative process that develops an internal assessment of current programs and capabilities for comparison to future needs for fire management. In terms of time frame; projections of future conditions and risks potentially affecting fire management are longer term –set in a 10 to 20 year reference timeframe. While strategies for new mission requirements and building new capabilities are near term — defined in a 4 to 5 year period.

The QFR is based on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review model which for the past two decades has served as a vehicle for the military to reexamine shifts in military strategy and changes in organizational tactics and capabilities. Conceptually, the intention of the QFR is to use the four year interval between reviews as an opportunity to reassess the future environment in wildland fire, summarize shifts in mission, roles and responsibilities, and agency relationships and chart new course directions for fire management. It should also be noted that the QFR is not a plan or a policy making document. It contains no recommendations, action items, or time tables. As an interagency assessment, it is purely advisory in tone. Its value is that it reaffirms interagency fire management priorities and outlines investment decisions for the future.


The International Association of Fire Chiefs and TV Worldwide has launched IAFC TV…

“…an innovative Internet television channel that will serve as an interactive, informative and educational resource for the fire and emergency service communities worldwide. IAFC TV will present newscasts, town hall meetings, coverage of IAFC conferences, interviews with fire service leaders and emergency alerts.”

A quick look at the videos that are available on the site shows that they have a “Monthly Newscast”, quite a few videos that are specifically about the IAFC, and some that are on a variety of subjects, such as communication, emergency response maps, and leadership. The site has a wildland section but it has nothing in it except “videos will be available soon”.

I wonder if the introduction of this “channel” has anything to do with the rumored bankruptcy of the Fire and Emergency Television Network?

More information from the IAFC about the new channel is HERE.