Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some Thoughts from Esquire on the GOP's Future... And More

I have read several dozen of these types of articles, but I think this one pretty much sums up my thinking in most ways though I deviate a bit on a couple of points.

I think you will enjoy it.

I bumped into a retired firefighter friend of mine today and he reinforced what seemed obvious about the recent (and on-going) fires. It should be noted that while most were allowed to go home, this morning, they announced more evacuations in other fire areas. Sigh.

If there was one thing the 2007 Santiago Fire revealed, it is that we do NOT have nearly enough resources. This happens every single time the Santana Winds comes sweeping down upon us.

In the case of 2007, we were the last major fire to start, thus our cooperative agreements had the Orange County Fire Authority spread so thin (some were in San Diego, some were in Malibu, some were in other places) there was almost no one (of any state fire department) available to help. Our observation that there were no planes, no helicopters, few ground fire resources and a lack of needed ground equipment to cut fire lines was obvious. We SAW it. We lived it. The stats back that up.

So, when speaking today with my retired firefighter friend, I was hardly shocked to hear what he had to say:
  1. There were few if any firefighters on the ground there (Yorba Linda) early on because our cooperation agreement sent bodies and trucks elsewhere. We were watching the fire on TV at the local library, and we were continually commenting on this very point five to six hours into the fire.
  2. The embers were, in many cases, softball sized and horrid to deal with. The winds were vicious. It's the embers, stupid!
  3. He defended his mother's house, alone, and saved it. Every single palm tree on her property (six or seven) caught fire. Six houses directly below her burned down, and six or seven on the street below that. The ONLY REASON his mother's house is standing is because he was there to defend it. Others (on television) said the same thing, and some trying hard to defend their properties were shocked to find no firefighters anywhere in sight.
When firefighters came around late summer to do inspections here, I had a long and very tense verbal discussion with them. I told them up-front I don't blame them, they are just the messenger, but Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) needs to get their act together in a big way. They didn't ask me to do anything unreasonable (though when they tell me to trim anything off my oaks, I bristle), but, as I said to them, since it was perfectly clear they would never defend my home, leave me in peace to live in it. I live here knowing the risk. It is the wildness and beauty that brought me here 34 years ago. I'm NOT leaving. Get the leaves off my roof. Check. Trim dead wood out of trees. Check. Anything else--take a hike. Not going to happen.

My little home is a wee one and old. It is about 800 or so square feet, built as a cabin around WWII. I live under three live oaks (one grows through my deck), beautiful native trees that are generally fire adapted. One is at least 1,000 years old (per my Ph.D.'d arborist friend).

My street is one-car wide, steep and hard to navigate with only one ingress/egress. Almost all the streets here, except the main road, is like this. My home is 2 inch-thick stucco, hand wrought top coat. I have boxed eaves. When we re-did the roof (cut the whole top of the house off to the header, and re-pitched it), the county made me put in three attic vents. THE COUNTY DOES NOT REQUIRE SCREENING OF VENTS IN THEIR CODE so embers (especially those on the upwind side of a home) just fly in there... and you're history. I am going to go back, now, and do that myself. This is one of the number one ways houses catch on fire. My downwind vents I will also do, but the upwind one is first on the list. I have been told now, three times by firefighters (including one Battalion Chief), exactly what to do and I am doing it. Screw the county.

I have a large redwood deck (less fire-prone than some materials, and certainly less toxic that recycled plastics if there is a fire which is why I have not used plastics, though they last much longer) and a terribly fire-prone pine carport/flat deck off set below that. I am going to have to do something about that lower situation. Don't know what, yet. I have NO brush on my property at all, and there hasn't been for almost 23 years. I keep all leaves and debris at bay, composting them, instead. I am number 3 of 9 houses on the water line and my pressure is good. I am VERY near the local reservoir tank, but that tank is fed by an electric pump, no doubt. We need to think about THAT. I need to think about where to place permanent sprinklers and add more feed lines. I am going to buy enough foam to be able to foam my home twice (it only lasts 24-36 hours). I am going to talk to my neighbors about doing likewise. It might cost us a couple thousand, but that is cheaper than fighting with the county (and we would all need attorneys) to rebuild. I am buying high pressure hoses that hook up to my regular spigots. Pricey, but useful.

The bottom line is this: I will not leave next time. 7 of the 10 people on my street are not leaving either. Yes, we will send children and animals out. But we adults, both men and women, are staying. We'll have to figure out a good place to park cars so we can get to them easily.

The fire department freaks when they hear this as though they are surprised. What? We KNOW what happened here in 2007. We saw it. The recent Yorba Linda fire underlines what we already knew: You leave, you can almost guarantee your house won't be safe. You stay, you have a much higher chance. If I lived on a ridge line, I would NOT stay. I don't live on a ridge line. Those that DID stay in non-ridge line homes told me that they fought small fires in their neighborhoods and saved most of the houses between several of them working together. Indeed, we know, in one case, that one person saved their family's home. Yep--as in all things, it takes a village. Some put out fires on more than one house several times.

By law, even during a mandatory evacuation, they cannot make you leave your property. If you step one foot off your own property, they can then arrest you. Good luck with that up here.:) People here learned a hard lesson in 2007 and those in other areas, now, learned it too.

To add to this, the volunteers in our local station (they are called paid call firefighters but are trained by the local agency and provided with equipment) went to the Yorba Linda Fire. They said there was, literally, no one there. When I was driving home from the store on Saturday (after deciding not to leave to go to the Prop 8 protest in Irvine given the increasingly ominous smoke I was seeing), I passed our volunteer truck going down-canyon on the road. I knew where they were going. I later saw a resident who is a Battalion Chief fly out of here in his red SUV. If not for this particular BatChief, in 2007 they would have lit backfires here that would have taken hundreds of homes out. Thank God for him. He has lived here ALL of his life.

What Needs To Be Done (My short List)

First, we need to get our own National Guard back in the country and trained to fight wildfires and respond to other local emergencies. We know from the recent past, and from experts in global warming, that fires, floods and radical weather events will be increasing in the near future. We need to deal with that NOW. Either that, or (as in my case) we need to increase our firefighters by a factor of at least 10-20. That isn't going to happen.

Second, adjustments need to be made to the cooperative agreements. Those of us in high fire areas know, from experience, that when we get one fire, we get several. Statistics bare this out. So sending units that significantly draw down local resources in fire-prone areas needs to stop. Trucks should be IN these areas BEFORE fires start, not 300 miles or more away and arriving two days later as happened in 2007.

Third, we must rethink building codes and planned community development along the wilderness/urban interface areas. In 2007, OCFA largely blamed the fire problem on older homes not up to current code and without newer three-tiered landscape buffering (the one closest is treeless and wet, the second is wet, treed with minimal ground cover and the third is dry but certain species only). AND they blamed residents for not clearing, which is a crock. They cannot say this about the recent fires where newer homes were lost and NOT interfaced, necessarily, on wild lands and WERE up to current codes including zoned fire buffer areas and new building codes. It's the embers, stupid. My county won't allow, for instance, straw bale homes but they do allow all wood homes or stucco homes with wood eaves. Go firgure. the former is FAR more fire resistant than the latter. But the decisions are made by guys and gals living in the past. They need to get an education.

Fourth, we need to convince the US Forest Service that during red flag alerts, they CLOSE federal lands and restrict access to residents only (we have fought with them for 20 years on this point). This should also be done in all state/county/city wilderness areas. This would mean only closing them for several days at a time (wind events are usually 3-4 day events and they are KNOWN prior). The last several fires we have had were ALL arson (including one set in the forest by the son of a county sheriff).

Fifth, we need to re-review approved landscape pallets on ALL new homes. Dump all the palm species--ALL OF THEM--and other high-oil trees (olive trees, for instance). Many of the native trees are highly fire resistant, and those should be encouraged and they have a second benefit of being useful to native wildlife and generally low water after taking hold. We are, in fact, in a Mediterranean area (read desert) and we need to think this way for both water use and fire prevention purposes.

Sixth, we need to train civilians on how to stay and defend since that is what is needed (and, in fact, going to occur in the future). People need to be aware of what TO wear and NOT to wear, and what kinds of devices and so on they need to be effective and protect themselves and their bodies and lungs. They also need to learn how to determine WHEN TO LEAVE and why.

Seventh, water districts need to be SURE they can support pressure needed to fight fires in communities and they will NOT do this without legal mandate, be sure of that. Two occurrences of near-zero water pressure (one in Sylmar and one in Yorba Linda) occurred in this last round of fires. One water district which serves Yorba Linda said they did not plan on such a fire event, thus they did not have enough water pressure and no one could fight the fire in that area (note: this may have been the case because of a pump failure). True, the fire departments have water tenders and water trucks, but they don't have enough of either. My water district has $1billion in reserves. Yes, you read that right. $1 billion. It is time they used that money to provide citizens with optimal water pressure, backup pumps, etc. minimum. They might even be able to start a program to GIVE (tax deduction for them) high pressure hoses to families, or at least subsidize them in the same way Southern California Edison underwrites cheap energy efficient light bulbs and some water districts underwrite low-flush toilets (my water district, which was taken over by the current $1 billion dollar district, did the low-flush toilet exchange years ago. This also could include low flow shower nozzles and a bunch of other things).

Eighth, the government needs to hold PUBLIC hearings to air concerns after a fire prior to writing their event reports. The Orange County Fire Authority didn't in 2007 and their report blames everyone but themselves for what happened. That is neither useful nor truthful. People need to be a PART of the solution, not treated like second class citizens. Furthermore, what they said happened in some areas is directly and multiply contradicted by those that stayed behind. The report was authored, in part, by a retired Battalion Chief who is friends with the county Fire Chief. Not good.

Ninth, we need to set up funding bases to buy private land in high fire areas either through mitigation moneys for lost ecosystems related to new development, or set asides from new home prices. It's got to be done. Right now, groups like the Nature Conservancy and others work with landowners to help sell their properties which often involve complex funding mechanisms AND tax deductions. It is cheaper, in the long run. These lands could be buffers (e.g. community gardens or modified else wise) to reduce fire proximity to future urban areas.

Tenth, the local municipalities need to USE knowledgeable people to help them. I rescue animals. There is absolutely NO reason that I should not be riding along with an animal control officer (as a partner) when they are called into an area. I am perfectly willing to go through training to increase my knowledge. Two people on one animal control truck is better than one and will make this agency, which has done such a bang up job here, even better. We can also be used to feed in place (county provides the stuff--we go and do it) when evacuated. Those that are bondable and with a proper background check should be able to do this (in pairs). It would have saved a huge amount of time for Orange County animal control in the 2007 fire. There are a ton of other examples of other areas this same thinking could apply to, including home x home inspection to be sure people are gone (or not) which the sheriff's department and fire does. In 2007, local folks EXTREMELY familiar with back country roads and trails were incredibly helpful to the fire departments unfamiliar with the area and even in cases where there were people from THIS very area. These are avid hikers and mountain bike riders that know the area like the back of their hands (I don't hike anymore (too busy) but there was a time I could do this, too. The people I know that ARE avid enthusiasts are remarkable).

We HAVE to think outside of the box. We know the box doesn't work.