Rebuilding Homes After the 2003 & 2007 California Fires

Cedar and Witch Fires
Cedar and Witch Fires

There is a very interesting story in the Los Angeles Times about an informal group that had one thing in common….. they all lost their homes during the 2003 Cedar Fire east of San Diego and helped each other through the extremely complex process of rebuilding. The group had an influx of new members following the Witch fire of last October. The article is long, but worth reading.

Here is an excerpt from the story:

LAKESIDE, CALIF. — As firefighters battled flames and evacuated northeastern San Diego County in October, a group of Cedar fire survivors did what they wished someone had done for them five years ago.
They headed out on fire watch.

David Kassel, 53, the group’s founder, drove over to Billi-Jo Swanson’s horse ranch with his fire hose to help wet down brush.

Steven Murray, 54, rode his motorcycle above San Vicente Dam to investigate reports of flames climbing the hill.

Then Kassel and Valentine “Val” Lance, 67, motored out to keep tabs on Wildcat Canyon Road, a major thoroughfare to Ramona that firefighters kept closing. The pair advised residents whether to stay home or evacuate.

That kind of expertise was hard won. Five years ago, they met as shell-shocked strangers, burned out by the Cedar fire — the state’s worst in 75 years — which consumed 273,000 acres, killed 15 people and left more than 3,000 homeless.

Survivors convened on Thursday nights in the Lakeside storefront of Maine Avenue Tax Service. They were academics and ranchers, Democrats and Republicans, exurban neighbors who wouldn’t have said more than hello at Starbucks before the fire.

Week by week, they helped each other through illnesses and other crises. The group grew from 10 to 50, adding an online list of many more. Some rebuilt bigger and better, and dropped out of the group. Others faltered and still haven’t rebuilt.

Then the wildfires returned to San Diego County. New fire victims began turning up at meetings, adrift and alone, and the dozen remaining regulars realized that they had a new mission.

Ex-San Diego Fire Chief: "The Time for Action is Now"

Chief Bowman
Chief Bowman

An excerpt from the North County Times:

“RANCHO BERNARDO — In unveiling a report on regional firefighting strategies at a news conference Tuesday, former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman said, “Much of what government does is this.”

Bowman stooped down to pick up a pile of documents nearly a foot thick. “This is what we produced after the (2003) Cedar fire.”

There is no need for more studies, said Bowman, who lives in Escondido.

“The time for action is now,” he said.

Speaking from a hilltop cul-de-sac where three Rancho Bernardo homes were incinerated in the Witch Creek fire last fall, Bowman and other members of a group called the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum outlined a checklist of actions they believe the region must take to avoid a similar catastrophe.

They called on the region’s most influential agencies to buy four new firefighting helicopters and 50 fire engines, and consolidate the numerous rural fire districts into a regional fire authority like one in Orange County, among other things.”

Yesterday, Feb. 19, the San Diego City Council unanimously approved the acquisition of a second helicopter for the city Fire-Rescue Department. They estimate it will cost $16 million and should be in service by August.

Photo of Chief Bowman, courtesy of SignOnSanDiego, 2006.

Prescribed Fire Demonstration for Invited Journalists

The Datona Beach NewsJournalOnline in Florida has an article about conducting a prescribed fire as a demonstration for a horde of invited journalists. Here is an excerpt:

“TOMOKA STATE FOREST — Mike Stigler watched as smoke and burning embers billowed into the woods. The smoke was supposed to lift into the sky, not curl through the pine trees and palmettos.

The burn boss looked around at his cadre of firefighters and the horde of media standing around in the middle of Tiger Bay State Forest on Tuesday to watch a demonstration on prescribed burning. He wasn’t entirely happy. The woods were too dry, and his firefighters didn’t have enough combined experience to make him comfortable, not that any burn boss ever rests easily once the flames begin.

But Stigler and the other folks charged with balancing wild Florida’s need to burn with its 17 million people get used to conundrums. It’s tough to find a time when it’s not too dry, not too wet and wind conditions are perfect so the smoke won’t close roads and sweep into day care centers and nursing homes.

Stigler, who serves as the senior ranger at the state forest, was asked to burn nearly 23 acres to demonstrate to a group of local journalists how and why government officials and private landowners set prescribed fires. His fire was set to culminate a morning of lectures, but only if the weather cooperated. Otherwise, he’d shut it down.”

Local Opposition to Cutting an Air Tanker

The local newspaper in the Kennewick and Tri-Cities area of Washington is very much opposed to what they say is the plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discontinue basing a single engine air tanker at Richland Airport. From the article in the Tri-City Herald:

“…….If you don’t believe us, give Chris Schulte, refuge fire management officer for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a call.

He told Herald reporter John Trumbo last week that he only has five fire engines and crews to cover those refuges. But by making the tanker available to the local firefighting agencies, he can call on 85 more engines and crews when needed.

The mutual aid agreement gives the federal government the first 12 hours of mutual aid at no charge. “It’s an incredibly beneficial deal for me,” Schulte said.

By “me,” Schulte means your agency, of course.

You already may be hearing from the Northwest’s political leaders. Fire officials around here are turning up the heat.

“We want local, statewide and national elected officials to intervene in this very poorly thought through decision,” explained Chief Bob Gear of Benton County Fire Protection District No. 1.

With so much to recommend against your agency’s plan for cutting services, they’ll no doubt respond to Gear’s call like it was a three-alarm fire.”

USDA’s Office of Inspector General Issues Report on Air Tankers

TBM Air Tanker
TBM Air Tanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert

From Scripps News:

The Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General criticizes the U.S. Forest Service’s report on air tankers. The OIG report is HERE.

Excerpts from the article:

U.S. Forest Service air tankers used in California and other Western states are potentially vulnerable to accidents, investigators warn in a new report.Despite making strides to improve air safety, the Forest Service could still use more money, better long-range planning and stricter aircraft inspections, among other improvements, federal investigators said.”The Forest Service has suffered numerous, potentially preventable aviation accidents over the years, and continues to be at risk for more,” the investigators with the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General noted this week.

“Firefighting aircraft are often subject to stresses well above those experienced in the flying environment for which they were originally designed,” the Office of Inspector General investigators observed, adding that “it is imperative to ensure that they can withstand the stresses of the fire environment.”

Forest Service officials largely agree with the 49-page critique, the latest in a series of reports, audits and hearings that have targeted the firefighting air fleet.

“The Forest Service takes very seriously its responsibility for safety in aviation, and has been working steadily to improve the air safety program,” Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said in the agency’s official response.

By January, Forest Service officials promise a comprehensive plan to assess the airworthiness of its tanker fleet. The agency owns and operates 26 aircraft outright and leases 771.

In its official response, the Forest Service is resisting recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration take more responsibility for the firefighting air safety program. Currently, the FAA approves planes generally but does not specifically determine whether the aircraft are fit for firefighting.

The Forest Service “possesses neither the technical information nor the expertise to assess its firefighting aircrafts’ airworthiness,” investigators said.

Kimbell retorted that “the FAA clearly has no … jurisdiction” over the firefighting (aircraft).

Jury awards $17,500 to fireman arrested at scene of accident

From the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Federal court jurors awarded $17,500 on Wednesday to a fire captain arrested by a Hazelwood police officer in a dispute over where a fire truck was parked during a 2003 car crash rescue.

Juror Betsy Vennemann said after the verdict, “We wanted to make a statement that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Capt. David Wilson won $7,500 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages. Jurors, including a nun, said they went easy on the defendant, Officer Todd Greeves, because he has a family and they weren’t sure who would pay the bill. Jurors hear dispute over arrest of firefighter at scene

Wilson testified that the Robertson Fire Protection District truck was parked in a way to protect rescuers working to free a victim from wreckage along Interstate 270 at McDonnell Boulevard.

Greeves ordered that the truck be moved to accommodate passing traffic and arrested Wilson for ignoring him. Wilson was released after 23 minutes and never charged. He sued, claiming civil rights violations that opened him to anxiety and humiliation.

Greeves told the court the truck was creating a hazard and not adding to safety at the scene.

Here is a link to another article about the case written before the jury reached a verdict.