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More homeowners at risk in Sierra fires

The Fresno Bee, Sunday, Jul. 31, 2011

A sign near North Fork warns homeowners of fire safety measures.

Fifty years ago, three sparsely populated Madera County foothill towns were destroyed by one of the fastest-moving fires ever recorded.

The Harlow fire roared through Ahwahnee, Nipinnawassee and Oakhurst — which then had a combined population of 600 — at speeds of up to 60 mph.

Today, that same area is filled with nearly 20,000 people. The next fire there could consume hundreds of homes and businesses.

Recent large-scale fires in Auburn and South Lake Tahoe show that wildfires can devastate heavily populated urban areas. While much of the Sierra is still uninhabited, foothill and mountain communities have grown steadily over the years, putting more people into a region that is subject to natural and man-made wildfires.

Despite the cool, wet spring, fire officials are predicting an average fire risk in elevations below 6,000 feet through October.

Homeowners can lower their risk by following the state’s rules, including clearing brush and maintaining an emergency water supply.

But planning and fire officials concede that, other than enforcing the rules, there is little they can do to stop homes from sprouting up in areas where fire can rampage.

Keeping it safe

On a Madera County hill known as Brushy Knob, Al White can see fire danger from his shaded wooden porch. Live oak trees on either side of the road stretch across and nearly touch.

Across the road, the home of a recent newcomer is surrounded by high brush in dire need of clearing.

“It’s really overgrown because we had so much rain,” said White, 68, who has lived there 26 years.

He said he is not sure his neighbors understand their responsibilities for lowering fire danger.

Many are from Southern California and figured they could enjoy the Sierra, live close to Yosemite and relax.

“But this time of year, it’s work,” White said.

Retiree Robert Palladino left Covina six years ago and bought a house near Oakhurst with 2.5 acres. He said he learned quickly how much effort it takes to live in California’s hinterlands.

“I try to weed-eat as much as I can,” said Palladino, 69. “But you really have no concept what they mean when they say they want it cleared around your house.”

Each spring, Sierra region residents are required to cut back trees and brush to put a 100-foot clearance around their homes.

Cal Fire inspectors go house to house to ensure that residents are creating their mini fire breaks.

On their first visit to David and Cindy Fiester’s home near Mariposa, firefighters told them to move some firewood. A second visit found no violations.

But at a neighbor’s home, firefighters ticked off several violations — tall brown grass, trees close to the home, no screening under the deck of the house and bushes growing around a propane tank.

The Fiesters hope their work will keep them safe from fire. Their home has a metal roof, their lawn is green and irrigated.

Even so, said Cindy Fiester, “we are so afraid of what’s behind us, because it’s all brush.”

Fire safety has to be a community effort. Groups known as fire safe councils apply for grants that pay for crews to clear brush or build fire breaks in areas historically prone to fires. In some cases, they pay to clear around homes when disabled or elderly owners can’t do the work.

Gene Warnert, who supervises an inmate crew for Cal Fire, said, “If they weren’t able to do this and we had a fire come through here, it could be catastrophic,” he said outside a brush-clearing project surrounded by pines in Madera County. “This makes firefighters’ jobs easier.”

Under fire

Sometimes all the brush-clearing efforts aren’t enough.

Fire officials in Auburn have long focused on a 26,000-acre wildland area run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which borders 70% of the city. The region’s population has grown by about 50% in the past 20 years.

But in late August 2009, a fire began near a shopping center outside of the city in North Auburn, not in the wildland area. On a hot and windy day, an arsonist ignited high brush in two spots. The wildfire damaged or destroyed 66 homes and nine businesses over 343 acres, causing $15 million in damage.

“It was done on a day when there was no way anybody was going to catch that fire,” said Rui Cunha, assistant director of the Placer County Office of Emergency Services.

Fire — whether natural or man-made — can spread more quickly in steep terrain.

Amador and Calaveras counties’ river canyons are extremely steep, and a fire there could devastate their tiny, isolated communities, said Lloyd Ames, 66, who has lived near the counties’ border for most of his life.

Although no major fires have erupted there for at least 25 years, Ames said, “if some lunatic was to light two sides of the river, then two counties would be in trouble.”

Can’t stop growth

In 2007, the Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe raged for nine days across 3,100 acres after a campfire spread on forest land in El Dorado County. At the time, it was among the six most-costly fires in the U.S., leaving more than $141 million in losses with 280 homes and 75 businesses destroyed or damaged.

The fire was sparked in a forest overstocked with fire-prone trees and brush. It then tore down a creek with heavy, dry brush leading to a neighborhood where it jumped from house to house because the areas around the houses weren’t cleared, said Jeff Cowen, spokesman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“It stopped at roads and homes that had defensible space,” he said. “About 70% of homes that survived in the middle of the burn had some kind of defensible space.”

Calaveras County Supervisor Steve Wilensky has his eye on five brush-filled river canyons with many homes — and with a high potential for fire.

“We are in the eye of the storm for fire threats,” said Wilensky, an outspoken advocate for thinning overgrown forests.

Some subdivisions in Calaveras County probably should never have been built, he said.

California began requiring the use of fire-retardant building materials and defensible space after some of the state’s most destructive fires, said Kate Dargan, state fire marshal from 2005 to 2009 and now a board member and spokeswoman for the California Fire Safe Council.

But those rules do not stop someone from building a home in a dangerous area.

The only way to halt such development is if a community decides to create a high-danger “overlay zone” for large swaths of land, Dargan said. But she said she is not aware of any such zones created in California because of fire danger.

“Very rarely does land use become so extreme that ‘no build’ is the only answer,” she said.

Developers who want to build in terrain with high fire potential face more stringent requirements, said Bev Shane, Tuolumne County’s community development director.

“We will look at what it will take to allow people to live there safely, get emergency services in and residents out if we need to evacuate,” she said.

Cal Fire officials say they can’t stop people from building in potentially dangerous foothills and mountain areas, but enforcing the rules — requiring fire-retardant materials on roofs and exteriors, an emergency water supply of at least 2,500 gallons, a minimum 100-foot brush clearance around homes and wider entries to properties to accommodate firefighting equipment — definitely helps.

Construction regulations improve chances that a home and its residents will survive a wildfire, but there will still be risks, said Karen Guillemin, a fire prevention specialist with Cal Fire in Mariposa.

“In America, you can live where you want to live,” she said. “It’s your property.”

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