Editorial published in the Mountain News, Lake Arrowhead, CA
Lessons for Lake Arrowhead
Beverly B. Voelkelt Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council
June 26, 2007
The tragic devastation by the Angora Fire south of Lake Tahoe begs to critically review this fire to see if there are lessons to be learned for our communities. Last week this newspaper reported on a Board of Supervisors special hearing about fire safety in the mountain communities. We learned that the communities are a lot safer than they have been in a long time. Indeed, over one million dead and dying trees have been removed within and around the communities since bark beetle; drought and an over crowded forest were recognized as a huge potential for disaster. Additionally, the Arrowhead Woods Architectural Committee (AWAC) had revised its tree cutting and spacing policy to better address the needs of the forest and the San Bernardino National Forest Association’s “Forest Care” program was established to assist home and property owners in creating healthy stands of trees on their land.
All this is supports the statement that we are a lot safer. However, a lot safer does not mean we are safe, it only means we are safer than before and I wish to emphasize this difference. While we can be proud of our achievements in protecting our forest, our communities, our quality of life and the value of our homes, we cannot rest on our laurels. A lot of work still needs to be done. Furthermore, forests are living and dynamic, thus maintaining a healthy forest is an ongoing task that will never end.
Already the principal factors that contributed to the Angora Fire’s ferocious intensity have been identified. According to CalFire (CDF) Captain Brian Eagan, a 23 year veteran with the department, it is crown fires with wild flying and massive amounts of embers that caused most of the destruction. With crown fires, where fire rapidly leaps from tree top to tree top, he is quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the flames travel extremely fast with temperatures sometimes reaching as high as 1,500 degrees. Unlike grass fires, this heat can be sustained for as long as an hour, making it very difficult for firefighters to battle the flames. Furthermore, Eagan also said homeowners still failed to realize the importance of clearing out brush and deadwood around their homes.
Gary Zunino, director of the University of Nevada’s Fire Science Academy, also stresses the importance of preventing crown fires. He is quoted as saying that crown fires are virtually impossible to stop until they run out of fuel and that the biggest challenge is to keep fire from getting into the crowns in the first place.
Understanding that the catastrophic losses during the Angora Fire were caused primarily by lack of defensible space around homes and by crown fires, we can now examine if our properties and those of our neighbors are prepared to face this challenge. Creating defensible space around your home is regulated by state law, Public Resource Code 4291. Preventing crown fires requires the elimination of ladder fuels, which are fuel sources that guide flames into the crowns of trees – grass ignites a bush, which ignites a small tree, which ignites a large tree.
Thus it is imperative that vegetation is properly spaced and that low hanging and dead branches are removed from trees. As a director of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council (ACFSC), I spend a lot of time in the field surveying the area for projects in our effort to mitigate fire risks to our communities. Unfortunately I still see too many properties that pose a risk to themselves and to neighboring properties. Because of property and housing density on this mountain, fire safety is not an individual effort but a community effort – we are only as strong, or safe, as the weakest link in the chain.
This year will go down in history as the driest year on record, which implies a high risk for fires. We have wonderful resources available to help protect us from devastating fires. I already mentioned the Forest Care program operated by CDF and the San Bernardino National Forest Association. In addition San Bernardino County Fire offers help through the Hazardous Tree Program and the Chipper Crews that chip, free of charge, any vegetation you remove. And finally there is the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council to assist you with any questions regarding fire safety.
Beverly B. Voelkelt ACFSC - Director of Operations