Photo by: Beverly Voelkelt
Area Risk Mitigation for Identified “Red Zones”
Beverly Bernice Voelkelt
Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF / CalFire) classifies the San Bernardino Mountains as a high fire hazard severity zone, an understanding shared by the U.S.F.S. firefighting division, San Bernardino County Fire and local community fire agencies. Because of this understanding a lot of resources are committed to this area in an effort to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire losses to our communities.
The science of understanding fires in the wildland-urban-interface has made significant progress
since 1990. Just like every earthquake offers scientists valuable new learning experiences that will
help save structures and lives in a future quake, every fire provides new and important information
on how best protect valuable real assets and lives, as well as improve the safety of firefighters and
other first responders.
Based on an effort by Oregon fire departments to assess communities, or areas within communities, with respect to their potential threat to firefighters in the event of a large-scale fire incident, the concept of assigning the designation “red zone” was developed. This concept was adopted for the San Bernardino Mountains by the various agencies serving the communities.
After the Old Fire of October 2003 the fire department internal map of “red zones” was revealed to the public. This revelation raised quite a political storm, especially once it became known that Cedar Glen, which lost of over 400 homes, was known to the fire department as a “red zone”.
For the communities in the San Bernardino Mountains “red zone” defining criteria can be identified as geographic location (slope, canyon, next to National Forest), vegetation density (chaparral brush, trees), housing density, lack of defensible space, available access (width of streets, dead end streets, escape routes), available fire flow (number of fire hydrants, water flow quantity and pressure), non regulation street signs and others. Should several of these criteria come together in a community or area, then it is defined as a “red zone”, a high-risk area in which firefighters operate with utmost caution. Within the service area of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council most communities, except the newer developed tracts of Arrowhead Woods, are affected by these challenges, often in more than one way.
A challenge does not imply surrender to a difficult problem or situation. A challenge demands a
creative approach to solving the issues defining the challenge. This is what the Arrowhead
Community Fire Safe Council proposes to do for communities identified as “red zones”.
Not all “red zone” communities or areas face the same set of challenges. It is therefore not advisable
to approach any mitigation effort with a standardized concept. Rather it makes sense to approach
each “red zone” as a unique area with unique sets of challenges. However, it quickly becomes
apparent that once a “red zone” is closely scrutinized, often small measures will mitigate the
challenges in a surprising and effective way.
All “red zone” communities need to be evaluated according to the following criteria and it is
important to take into consideration the aspect of “mutual aid” that brings out of town firefighters to
1. Determine the fuel load within and at the perimeter of the “red zone”, also closely looking at vegetation fuel dangers along roadways for ingress / egress of fire engines and evacuations.
2. Evaluate the area with respect to topography and geographic limitations in order to determine a strategy for required fuel reductions and modifications.
3. Look at housing density to get a better understanding for creating defensible space around
individual homes, blocks and sections in the community.
4. Determine how useful roads are with respect to accommodating fire engines and equipment, as well as serving as evacuation routes.
5. Evaluate the condition of fire hydrants. Have hydrants been recently flow tested? Are they
uniformly painted bright yellow and the red marking posts visible with blue reflective tape? Are
plants overgrowing the hydrant?
6. Look at the installation of proper regulation street signs at all intersection. Ensure all dead-end streets are labeled as such to prevent vehicles from getting stuck. Are turnaround points in place? Ensure the closest way to a major evacuation route is clearly indicated at all intersections.
Typically any mitigation effort will focus on alleviating problems caused by several issues
simultaneously or, in the rare case, tackle a singular issue that nevertheless is of great importance.
1. Fuel load is easily mitigated by careful thinning and spacing of trees to prevent one tree
starting another on fire. It is also important to eliminate ladder fuels that increase flame length,
which reach taller trees (crown fires) and structures.
2. On steep slopes it is important to pay more attention to ladder fuel reduction and spacing trees in greater distance to each other because the slope will create a different environment for a fire by allowing the flames to reach higher and advance more rapidly.
3. Already various state and local codes call for defensible space around homes. In densely build areas it is important to understand that the creation of defensible space becomes a community effort, i.e. one only has defensible space to where one’s neighbor’s property begins. Thus, it is important to get all neighbors to participate in creating defensible space for all homes.
4. Roads are the only way for residents to get out of harms way in the event of a threatening fire and the only way for firefighters to reach areas that need to be defended. Thus, it is imperative that all roadways are open and as safe as possible to travel. The National Fire Plan calls for significant thinning along roadways of 10 feet on either side of the pavement. This also includes ladder fuel reduction on and around all remaining trees, as well as removing all branches below 15 feet vertical clearance over the road to ensure a fire engine can safely pass under it.
5. Fire hydrants are supposed to be flow tested in regular intervals to ensure they are functioning properly. Any repairs are to be performed immediately. For the San Bernardino Mountain communities the serving fire agencies have agreed to use a standard color scheme to make fire hydrants easily visible. All hydrants are to be painted a bright yellow and all marking posts are to be painted in bright red and feature a two inch wide blue reflective tape about three inches below the top. This ensures their visibility even under the most adverse visibility conditions.
6. During every major fire incident very quickly outside fire fighting resources arrive to aid our local fire departments. These resources are not familiar with our mountain communities and need to rely on maps and to a smaller degree on GPS systems to navigate in this unfamiliar terrain. In addition the mountain communities are known resort communities, attracting thousands of visitors at any given time. To facilitate an ordered evacuation and to guide fire fighters in and out of areas, it is important that all communities have proper regulation street signs that identify the name of the street, signs that identify a dead-end street, signs that show the shortest route out of an area and any other signs that improve the safety of the community and first responders.
Funding of A.R.M. Projects
The Arrowhead Communities Fires safe Council is well prepared to fund fuel reduction efforts with its “fuel reduction grants” issued by the U.S. Forest Service. However, these grants are restricted grants that only allow the money to be used for fuel reductions. Thus, it is important to secure additional, unrestricted, grants to pay for turn around points, painting of fire hydrants and installing street signs. As alternative to finding and securing unrestricted grants, the council can also engage in fundraising activities and seeking donations from the community.
Photo Comment: Beverly B. Voelkelt, former Director of Operations of the Arrowhead
Communities Fire Safe Council (center) and treasurer Ginny Jablonski (L), with firefighters of the U.S.F.S., CALFIRE, County Fire and Deerlodge Park community leaders celebrating the completion of a collaborative A.R.M. effort for that community in the summer of 2007, only a few months before the Grass Valley Fire, during which this effort should play a critical role in successfully protecting Deerlodge Park.
Photo by: Cat Robertson, Mountain News, Lake Arrowhead, CA.