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Fanned by Santa Ana winds, the wildfires in Southern California killed 20 people, including one firefighter, destroyed over 3,000 homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents. Several hundred thousand acres burned. As reported in Firehouse® many times over the past several years, Contributing Editor Robert Winston as well as many local fire officials have been warning that building homes in the wildland interface poses risks to homeowners, firefighters and fire departments. It is a no-win situation.
As these fires were burning, this fire season in Southern California was being called the worst in over 10 years. Division Chief Bill Clayton of the California Department of Forestry (CDF) spoke to me about 10 days before the fires began. Just as in the movie "The Perfect Storm," he predicted that, if certain conditions came together, this fire season could be the worst in California history because of the high temperatures, the low humidity, Santa Ana winds, a continued drought and a beetle infestation that killed millions of trees, adding fuel. If a fire erupted in certain areas, he said, there might be no stopping it, making it "the perfect fire."
As I write this, more than 900 engines, 62 helicopters, 243 hand crews and 11,790 other firefighting personnel are operating at these fires, which have burned almost 500,000 acres. CDF Assistant Chief John R. Hawkins, who wrote a wildfire strategy article for us in the September issue, said that in his 40 fire seasons on the job, this is the worst he has seen. As resources were being ordered from Nevada and Arizona, only time will tell how destructive these fires become. Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Public Information Officer Tim Szymanski reported that two strike teams of five engines and one battalion chief each from Las Vegas and neighboring departments were sent to California to assist.
Firefighters have saved 10 times as many houses as the number that have burned. They are overwhelmed, outnumbered, stretched critically thin and battling Mother Nature. Mechanics have been working to keep apparatus in service, placing reserve and training rigs in service for use on fires. Dispatchers have been overwhelmed with incoming calls, dispatching resources and helping to coordinate evacuations.
As I have traveled throughout many of these areas recently, I could only wonder why there aren't more fires in these wildland areas. Only a few weeks ago, I was driving in California, observing massive amounts of construction on many hills and valleys in these fragile areas. Firefighters can do only so much with steep hills and loads of fuel on hillsides and mountain ranges. Fires have burned many times and, unfortunately, will burn again and again. Only time will tell the outcome. You will find our first report on the California wildfires on pages 16-19, and we will bring you extensive coverage in an upcoming issue. Special presentations on the fire season will be added to the program for Firehouse World in San Diego, Feb. 1-5, 2004.
Speaking of fires, we have received calls asking when we are going to run the story about the tragic nightclub fire that occurred in West Warwick, RI, in February. We are prepared to travel to the site to interview those involved in that tragedy, but because of pending litigation, we are still waiting for permission to interview the firefighters involved. At this time, no one has been allowed to talk to members of the department. Meaning no disrespect to the families of the deceased, this fire, which killed 100 people and was the worst in the U.S. in 2003 in terms of fire deaths, is almost a non-incident. With no information forthcoming, sad to say, it is almost as though the fire never happened. We must learn from the past to prevent future tragedies.
"The perfect fire" is the fire that should never occur. Fire protection and life safety efforts have been designed to reduce death and injury. Over the years, these standards usually have been incorporated only after a deadly fire has taken place. It is tough to take when you see people burned out of their homes, whether from a wildland fire or a structural fire anywhere in the country.