August 7, 2008

Tracking Flames in Forest

By Stacia Glenn

DEER LODGE PARK - The wind howled and blew his worst nightmare that much closer, the red glow burning hot like a demon in the night.

Randy Clauson blinked once, probably twice, then his tired brown eyes focused on the hellish vision.

It didn't look like it was moving, but his years as a firefighter told him otherwise. This quaint community of A-frame houses would share his nightmare and it was going to happen quickly.

It was 5:08 a.m. Oct. 22 when fire officials in the San Bernardino National Forest were rustled out of bed with a report of Ponderosa pines, black oaks and manzanita burning about a mile west of Lake Arrowhead.

Officials surmised a power line had snapped near Grass Valley Road and Aleutian Drive, igniting the fire. An official cause has yet to be released.

Eight minutes later, U.S. Forest Service Capt. Scott Howes called for a mandatory evacuation after reporting a blaze that could quickly balloon into more than 1,000 acres.

"We knew what the potential was but we knew we couldn't stop it," said Clauson, a U.S. Forest Service battalion chief. "It was our worst fear."

The harrowing path of the four-day Grass Valley Fire is detailed in a recently released two-pronged report that dares to deem an urban fire responsible for nearly all of the 199 homes lost.

Only six of those mountain houses were destroyed by the 1,242- acre wildfire, research scientist Jack Cohen wrote in the report.

Cohen found during a five-day study at the conclusion of the fire that most of the homes perished in domino effect fashion as embers rained down upon the neighborhoods.

"The general perception is that the wildfire rolls through the community and lays the houses to waste," Cohen said. "That's not the way it's happening."

The crux of the problem is that many mountain homes sit too close to each other because the structures were built as cabins and second homes. Contractors never intended them to be full-time abodes.

In addition, too many have wood-shake roofs, pine needles in the rain gutters, and wood piles or vegetation close enough to the home that it enables a wildfire to jump onto a house.

An 18 mph northeast wind gusting up to 40 mph pushed the fire down into the Grass Valley Creek drainage, where it simmered for more than four hours before making a push toward homes.

It was about 9:15 a.m. when flames slithered up a steep slope to feast on a three-story mountain home on Brentwood Drive near Edge Cliff Drive.

That was the first of 199 that would be consumed over the next seven hours. Of those, 174 were completely burned and 25 were partially damaged.

The domino effect claimed 122 of the decimated houses, leaving surface fires or embers to destroy 71, Cohen said.

George Corley, a San Bernardino County fire division chief, doesn't buy the theory that the destruction of the Grass Valley Fire can be attributed to an urban fire, the movement of fire from house to house.

"The catalyst for the house fires was still the wildland fire," he said. "The wildfire was basically the fuse that started the whole thing."

The head of the fire moved southwest through the drainage until a record-setting October wind lofted it up the hill and into homes on Windward Road, Amador Lane, Marin Lane and Trinity Drive.

Flames licked at shrubs and conifer branches that hung low to the ground, and embers drifted predominately toward Windward Road.

Here, stands of trees remained untouched by the fire that chewed through a row of million-dollar houses that stood only a few feet from one another.

Trinity Drive saw the highest-intensity flames, which fire officials determined were from the completely consumed trees and shrubs scattered down the hill.

Thirty homes burned in a zigzag pattern through that neighborhood, damaging another five as the blaze swept toward the far reaches of Brentwood and Trinity drives around 10 a.m.

Broken staircases, piles of rubble and shattered pieces of people's lives were left in its wake. Many chimneys stood as a silent testament to what had once been.

On the east side of the blaze, flames burned less hot as they launched an attack on four homes on Brentwood Drive and moved southeast to the lower stretch of Trinity Drive.

"I can't say enough about the tactics that were successful by the firefighters," Cohen said. "In many cases, the suppression action that was taken prevented further damage. More houses would have burned."

By 10:30 a.m., the fire had extended from Grass Valley Creek drainage to the top of the community at Kings Court.

This is the time Cohen said homes primarily burned because of embers that floated from house to other houses less than 40 feet away.

Winds continued to gust up to 35 mph and send a shower of burning debris cascading down the slopes and winding roads.

There was "little chance of preventing the disaster," according to the report.

Although there were 15,000 firefighters on the mountain and the conflagration was deemed top priority in the nation, resources were still tapped.

Around the same time the Grass Valley Fire roared to life, another wildfire broke out at Green Valley Lake.

This blaze, dubbed the Slide Fire, charred 12,759 acres and destroyed 272 structures in Running Springs and Green Valley Lake.

Fire officials knew the conditions and recent Santa Ana winds worked against them. The night before the mountains burst into flame, extra engines were staffed at many mountain fire stations.

But there were simply not enough firefighters to knock down flames on homes that continued to catch fire and burn on both sides of several streets.

On nearby Inyo Court, seven houses were decimated. When the homes caught fire, the flames spread up tree trunks and into the canopies, which gave the blaze yet another path to follow through the community.

Fingers of fire stretched southwest around the hillside and were quickly upon houses on Sonoma Drive and Madera Lane.

Once the first house was engulfed, embers likely ignited a home at Madera and Del Norte lanes, resulting in the eventual loss of five homes in the area.

Around 11 a.m., the wind shifted slightly more left and sent flaming rubble tumbling downhill toward Merced and Modoc lanes.

Ninety-five homes were charred in this section of six rows of houses that dot the mountainside; another 10 suffered extensive damage.

A spot fire simultaneously started just west of 700 Sonoma Drive and east of Tunnel 2, a U.S. Forest Service fuel treated area along Lake Gregory between Lake Arrowhead and Twin Peaks.

The spot fire, burning about noon, grew to 35 acres and claimed two homes on Placer Lane.

The clock struck 4 p.m. as more spot fires moved across Walnut Hills Drive and climbed Fairway Drive.

Following the path of the fire with his camera and notebook led Cohen to a startling and controversial conclusion: "A house fire at an upwind location at the same time and under the same conditions as the wildfire could have resulted in significant fire spread within the community."

Apparently demons, whether wild or house-broken, stalk the mountains through the face of fire.

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