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It's not easy to tame a wildfire


Last updated 6/6/2007 at Noon

Every time you see the distinctive yellowish-brown smoke of a wildland fire I’d like you to envision a homeowner standing on his roof with a garden hose. Sure enough, when the news comes on, there he is protecting his property. Brave. Proud. Makes you want to be just like him! Well, if you have a garden hose attitude, this article is for you!

Someone recently told me they truly believed that even with 40 mph winds they could protect a very large building with garden hoses because it was out in the open and there weren’t many trees nearby. The fact is, however, that standing on the roof of a house with a garden hose in hand in those conditions is a useless effort.

It is very, very dry in North County this year. Wildland fire danger is extraordinarily high, and every single person needs to be exceptionally cautious. Every property owner needs to get out immediately and remove the weeds and brush and anything else that might torch their house. Eliminate the fire hazards as soon as possible.

Very few people understand the behavior of fire and even fewer are prepared to cope with a wall of flames roaring through their neighborhood. The ferocity and magnitude of a windswept wildfire with 1,500-degree temperatures racing through “light grass” or “heavy fuel” is devastating and often deadly. It tests the preparedness of homeowners and the skills of all firefighters.

The North County Fire Protection District (NCFPD), headed by Chief Bill Metcalf, is superbly managed and staffed by a group of professional firefighters who know their way around the fire business and who are highly competent by any standard.

The success of firefighters in mitigating the danger depends in large part on good training, good equipment and skilled leadership. Aggressive attempts to extinguish the fire are essential. Dependable, up-to-the-minute reports on the fire and its behavior are imperative and totally reliable communications are an absolute must. The NCFPD is up to speed in all of these areas and as new technology becomes available it is adopted quickly. You can be proud of your fire department!

Another absolutely essential ingredient is the preparation that a community, neighborhood or individual homeowner takes to reduce the exposure to fire damage. Clear out the thicket, cut down trees and cut off overhanging branches. Replacing a wood shingled roof is a good idea. Trim trees so a fire engine can make it up the driveway and be able to turn around.

Dozens of hours of hard labor were spent clearing a 125-foot buffer zone around my own house to minimize the effects of a wildfire passing through my part of Fallbrook. But am I sufficiently protected? Let’s put it this way: I no longer have a jungle of junk trees and vines growing within 50 feet of my house and I qualify for fire insurance. I think I have minimized my exposure, but if a 40 mile-per-hour Santa Ana wind pushed a wildfire through the south part of town I would still want a lot of fire engines on my street!

The Fallbrook Fire Safe Council has published a wonderful pamphlet entitled “Fallbrook isn’t fireproof – let’s make it Firesafe.” Every resident should read it. You can get a copy by calling them at (760) 728-1100 or going to their Web site,

I urge every resident to take a critical look at their property and get rid of the clutter that would make fuel for a fire. Making your house fire-safe should be very high on your list of things to do starting this week!

The author, Ken Munson, was a volunteer fire captain for 19 years with the Orange County Fire Authority and served a term as chairman of the California State Firefighters’ Association Committee for Volunteers. He retired in 1997. He moved to Fallbrook just after the Gavilan Fire and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the North County Fire Protection District. He writes as a private citizen.


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