August 7, 2008

Report: Fuel Breaks Helped Limit Fire Destruction

By Stacia Glenn

In the woods beside Lake Gregory, tree trunks tell a very important tale.

The bark is blackened, scorched from flickering flames that moved through the forest in the fall of 2007. What is important to note, though, is what remains.

The Grass Valley Fire failed to gobble the shrub oaks and Jeffrey pines in the wide swath of meticulously manicured land known as "Tunnel 2," a fuel-treated area along the typically placid lake between Lake Arrowhead and Twin Peaks.

When U.S. Forest Service officials began plans to treat the 232- acre plot three years ago, it was with a blaze in mind like the one that tore a treacherous path through the mountains on Oct. 22 and feasted on 199 homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

A twofold report released recently on the Grass Valley Fire proves what fire officials knew all along: Fuel breaks can save houses and allow firefighters to tread more safely through catastrophic wildfires.

"When the fire went into Tunnel 2, we could basically ignore it and concentrate on putting out the house fires," said U.S. Forest Service Operations Section Chief David Kelly. "If that hadn't been treated, we would never have had enough resources to get to the Crestline side of the fire in time."

Dozens more homes could have burned if the flames hadn't lowered, both in height and heat, once it reached Tunnel 2.

Because low-hanging branches had been shorn, 20 percent of the shrubs had been removed and all dead trees Advertisement were carted away, the flames dropped from 30 feet to two feet as it picked its way through the treated area.

Eight hours after the fire raced from Deer Lodge Park to Brentwood Drive in Lake Arrowhead, Kelly hustled to Tunnel 2 to see what the fire was doing there.

He found what he expected.

"It worked as advertised," he said.

Confident the fire's slow spread through the area didn't increase the burden on limited resources, firefighters were sent to the east flank of the blaze to save houses.

It took more than four hours for the low-intensity flames to reach the south side of Tunnel 2. When it did, firefighters dropped retardant to secure the perimeter and moved on to threatening sections of the blaze.

This was by no means the first fuel break that saw some success in the San Bernardino National Forest. Maps outlining fuel breaks date back to the 1930s.

"We've all come to the conclusion that if we don't do these fuel treatments, we can lose the whole thing," said San Bernardino County Assistant Fire Chief Peter Brierty.

Yet, it wasn't until 2002 that a bark-beetle outbreak forced fire officials to make significant inroads with fuel breaks.

Stands of trees weakened by drought and disease died, setting the stage for the Old Fire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and charred more than 91,000 acres in 2003.

The Old Fire started a mentality shift in the mountains.

Southern California Edison kicked off a program removing dying or diseased trees. More than 186,000 trees were removed by October 2007, officials said.

Removing imperiled trees from the forest eliminated the risk that they would fall on power lines, houses and roadways. It also reduced the chance that they would catch fire and send a shower of embers downwind.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved trend- setting changes to development standards: Double-paned windows became a must, wood-shake roofs were no longer an option, and venting was switched so embers couldn't be sucked into attics.

The Mountain Area Safety Task Force was created to coordinate efforts on managing land, infrastructure and emergency response in Lake Arrowhead and nearby communities.

The group scouted areas in the forest to determine where fuel breaks would be most effective.

Criteria for selecting a spot depend on how many pine needles, shrubs and trees are in an area and whether fire officials believe the treated area would be large enough to change fire behavior.

"It's just like your campfire," said the U.S. Forest Service's Sue Zahn, the district fuels officer. "The more wood you put on it, the more it burns."

Knowing that 25 percent of the forest has already burned over the years made selecting sites a tad easier.

Crews come out every few months or so to remove dead, dying or diseased trees in treated areas, prune bushes and make sure that the fuels were discontinuous so a wildfire would lose intensity if it passed through.

The differences in treated areas versus untreated areas are not as obvious to an untrained eye.

Zahn stood on Grass Valley Road in Deer Lodge Park on a recent afternoon and gestured to the east. Trees and bushes were scattered a solid 10 feet apart, grass was cut to a few inches and only an occasional tree branch littered the ground.

Then she looked to the west, just across the road.

Buckthorne and manzanita bushes were clumped together so tightly that you couldn't see through the shrubs. Blades of grass grew more than eight inches high, and several tree branches swung low to the ground.

"Driving by, you wouldn't even notice. It's all forest," Zahn said of the treated area. "This shows fuel treatments don't need to be offensive and ugly."

The problem with an overgrown forest, officials said, is that firefighters cannot see well enough to make good decisions on what the fire is doing or plan attacks. Oftentimes, they err on the side of safety and choose not to venture into certain neighborhoods.

"Fire personnel noted that visibility was improved where trees and brush had been removed," according to the report. "The treatments allowed firefighters to enter residential areas that otherwise would have been avoided due to safety concerns."

Another project that generated praise in the report is the Edge Cliff fuel break, which provided a margin of safety for those who were first evacuated during the Grass Valley Fire.

The fuel break kept the fire from creeping up the drainage to the homes that rested on the ridge.

Sheriff's deputies worked to get people out of their homes while firefighters laid a one-foot wide line through the community to make a stand against the blaze.

"If the fire would have gotten up on the flat here, it would have run all the way down to the lake," said county Fire Division Chief George Corley.

But it didn't.

Lives and houses were spared because of the precise planning of fire officials, much like the communities around Tunnel 2.

(c) 2008 Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.