4:53pm

Mon June 3, 2013
U.S.

Calif. Firefighters Rush To Get Ahead Of Early Fire Season

Originally published on Tue June 4, 2013 2:39 pm

Fire season is off to an early start in the West. Across California, a hot and dry spring has fire crews on alert. Northeast of Los Angeles, thousands of firefighters are making progress toward controlling the so-called Powerhouse Fire, which has burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed several homes.

And with no rain in sight, firefighters are out readying homes for a particularly bad year.

Engine 3160, a wild-land firetruck in Beaumont, Calif., already has that recent fire smell. But on a recent afternoon, it wasn't heading to a fire line. Instead, it was on its way to a "defensible space inspection," explained Will Bryant, a captain with the state's firefighting corps, Cal Fire.

That term is firefighter-speak for an area around a home or property that is cleared or thinned of wood piles, brush — pretty much anything that can catch fire.

"Defensible space helps us do our jobs by ensuring that [people's] homes are more protected in the event that a fire comes through," Bryant said.

Creating A Buffer To Help Slow Fires

Which is why in California, where nearly 1 million people live in locations threatened by wildfire, defensible space is required by law. In areas the state is responsible for, like the house-dotted hills and chute canyons that make up Beaumont and its surroundings, homeowners need to clear all flammable vegetation within 30 feet of their home and reduce the vegetation an additional 70 feet from that, forming a 100-foot buffer.

Engine 3160 pulled up in front of a house in a golden-grass field with views of the distant peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. Homeowner Steve Romberg was waiting with Julie Hutchinson, another Cal Fire worker. Bryant and Hutchinson were there to check on the clearing Romberg had done on his property.

"If you don't mind, we'll just take a quick walk around your house and I can take a look at stuff," Bryant said. "Kind of point out what might need to be worked at."

The point of these inspections isn't so much to be strict disciplinarians. It's to teach homeowners the basics of fire behavior and how to protect their home during one. Cal Fire is also sharing checklists of fire-prevention tips with property owners.

"With any type of fire, once it hits that short stubby grass it slows down real easily and it's really easy to ... protect your structure if needed," Hutchinson explained.

This may not sound like rocket science — and it's not. For Romberg, it's old news. "I've lived here for a while and I've kind of sorted it out," he said. But for every Romberg there's someone who has just moved to a place like this, where timber and brush are practically right outside the doorstep.

"It is a challenge educating people who maybe have lived in the city," Hutchinson said. "They drive up here and go, 'Oh, it's gorgeous.' But they're not thinking like someone who lives up in this area who have seen fire. You have to educate them and [say], 'Be aware that, hey, these things happen.' "

Hot Summer Conditions, In May

There's proof of that just a short drive down the hill. Just a couple miles away from Romberg's house, the land looks like a moonscape.

"You'll see this whole area has been burned. It was just under 3,000 acres. It started on May 1," Hutchinson says.

The house that was closest to the fire front is uninhabitable. The brick base of the house is charred black and the roof — or what's left of it — has collapsed. This homeowner had done some clearances, Hutchinson says, but clearly, it wasn't enough.

"So you can see just how much fire came at that house. It wasn't just a 20-foot strip of fire. That was several hundred feet of fire," she says. "Very tall flame lengths because that was a lot of tall grass.

"But look at how many homes were right adjacent to this and down off the other bluff there that didn't get damaged at all," Hutchinson adds. Those houses are still standing, surrounded by green lawns and brown lots — clear defensible space.

The rest is nuked.

And this type of damage, this early in the year, is strange, Hutchinson says. "We don't normally see that until we hit those really hot, dry summer months and into fall ... when we'll see that type of destruction. And we're seeing it in May. And this was May 1. So, very significant."

Conditions could always change, she says. But with forests dry and ready to burn like it's October, and fire engines that already smell like smoke, firefighters are going to keep preparing as if these conditions are here to stay.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Fire season is off to an early start in the West. Northeast of Los Angeles, thousands of firefighters are making progress towards controlling a big fire. The Powerhouse Fire, as it's being called, has burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed a number of homes. Throughout the region, a hot and dry spring has fire crews on alert. They're helping homeowners prepare for potential fires.

And NPR's Nat Rott went out with one crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN IGNITION)

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Engine 3160 isn't the newest wildland fire engine out here in Beaumont, California, nor is it the quietest.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FIRE ENGINE)

ROTT: Climbing in, it's still got that recent fire smell. Though today, it won't be going to any fires.

CAPTAIN WILL BRYANT: Today, we're going to do an inspection. A defensible space inspection.

ROTT: Will Bryant is a captain with CAL FIRE, the state's firefighting corps. And that term he just used - defensible space - it's one that you're going to hear a lot. It's firefighter-speak for an area around a home or property that is cleared or thinned of wood piles, brush - pretty much anything that can catch fire.

BRYANT: Defensible space helps us do our jobs by ensuring that their homes are more protected in the event a wildfire comes through.

ROTT: Which is why in California - where nearly one million people live in areas that are threatened by wildfire - defensible space is required by law. In areas the state is responsible for, like the house-dotted hills and chute canyons that we're driving through now, homeowners need to clear or thin 100 feet from their home.

BRYANT: So it looks like the homeowner is out front. I'm going to make contact and talk to him about his clearances so far.

ROTT: Steve Romburg is that homeowner. And he's waiting with Julie Hutchinson, another CAL FIRE worker. She does the introductions.

JULIE HUTCHINSON: This is Will Bryant. He's the captain down at the station.

STEVE ROMBURG: Glad to meet you, Will.

BRYANT: Nice to meet you.

ROMBURG: This is God's Country. Welcome to it.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Romburg gestures out across a golden-grass field to the distant peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains.

ROMBURG: Where would you like to start, Will?

BRYANT: All right, well, if you don't mind we'll just take a quick walk around your house. And I can take a look at stuff, kind of point out what might need to be worked at.

ROTT: The point of these inspections isn't so much to be strict disciplinarians. It's to teach homeowners the basics of fire behavior and how to protect their home during one.

BRYANT: With any type of fire, once it hits that short stubby grass it slows down real easily. And it's a lot easier to take care of, protect your structure if needed.

ROTT: Now this may not sound like rocket science because it's not. For people like Romburg, it's old news.

ROMBURG: Well, I've lived here for a while and I've just kind of sorted it out.

ROTT: But for every Romburg, there's someone who just moved to a place like this, where timber and brush are a hundred yards away from the doorstep. Again, Julie Hutchinson.

HUTCHINSON: It is a challenge educating people who maybe lived in the city. They drive up here and go, It's gorgeous. But they're not thinking like someone who lives up in this area who has seen fire. You have to really educate them on, hey, beware, these things happen.

ROTT: There's proof a short drive down the hill.

HUTCHINSON: You see this whole area has been burned. It was just under 3,000 acres and it started on May 1st.

ROTT: Just a couple miles away from Romburg's house, the land looks like moonscape.

HUTCHINSON: And this house up here on the right was the closest to the fire front.

ROTT: Oh man. Yeah, you can tell.

The brick base of the house is charred black. The roof - or what's left of it - is collapsed. This homeowner had done some clearances, Hutchinson says, but clearly it wasn't enough.

HUTCHINSON: So you can see just how much fire front came at that house. It wasn't just, you know, a 20-foot strip of fire. That was several hundred feet of fire. Very tall flame lengths 'cause that was a lot of tall grass. But look at how many homes were right adjacent to this and down off the other bluff there that did not get damaged at all.

ROTT: Those houses are still standing, surrounded by green lawns and brown lots - clear defensible space. The rest is nuked.

And this type of damage, this early in the year, it's strange.

HUTCHINSON: Yeah, we don't normally see that until we hit those really hot, dry, summer months and into fall is when we'll see that type of destruction. And we're seeing it in May. And this was May 1st. So very significant.

ROTT: Conditions could always change, she says. But with forests dry and ready to burn like it's October, and fire engines that already smell like smoke, firefighters are going to keep preparing like the conditions won't.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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