Fire threat high in area
Last updated 6/28/2007 at Noon
Summer is descending on Fallbrook, bringing temperatures in the 100s, and as the Santa Ana winds rustle leaves left dry by the winter freeze, the prospect of fire grows ominous.
With 22 years on the job, Fire Marshall Sid Morel carries the weight of Fallbrook fire safety on his shoulders. With an enormous responsibility few match, he comes to work each day with the dedication of a warrior facing a menacing foe. And, fire is a formidable foe – like the Gavilan Fire in 2002 that destroyed over 43 homes and outbuildings, the recent suspicious brushfires plaguing the San Luis Rey riverbed and the 2003 Cedar Fire during which 14 lives were lost.
Morel’s vigilance is persistent, but he’s not alone in his fight. All of Southern California is facing “above normal fire potential due to a harsh confluence of factors. Increased fuel, abnormally dry weather and greater urban interface are creating a particularly combustible mix for the 2007 fire season,” said California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, recently appointed chairman of the advisory committee on Rural Fire Prevention and Protection, said, “Rural property and homeowners should emphasize clearing, roofing, access and water.” Jeffries served as a volunteer fire captain and, prior to being elected to the assembly, worked for the Riverside County Fire Department.
He continued, “Water for fire protection is one of the primary missions of all water districts. If your neighborhood has a municipal water system but you do not have a fire hydrant nearby, work with your local water district to have one put in. If you are in a very rural area with no water system, consider a small steel water tank with a pump and hose for your property.”
Insurance companies are aware fire season may have devastating effects on Fallbrook, too. On May 30, the day the North County Fire Protection District mailed 13,909 weed abatement notices to Fallbrook property owners, Allstate Insurance announced it will stop offering new home coverage in California starting in July, claiming it is “the latest in a series of actions the company has taken to responsibly manage the risk associated with offering property insurance in catastrophe-prone California.”
While fire is a catastrophe, its risk can be reduced. “Don’t get burned twice – first by potential fire, then by trying to recover your losses. Take the step today to update your home inventory and review your insurance policy to protect your home,” Poizner warns.
While Morel and his firefighters face the driest season on record, Fallbrook residents should be even more watchful for signs of property neglect that can fuel a fire.
Despite all the warning, are all homeowners prepared? Morel doesn’t think so. Although early compliance to the weed abatement notification has been good, he said, “A lot of people have cleared, but not all have followed the rules.”
The deadline for compliance is June 30. Even with the dedicated commitment of the Fallbrook Fire Safe Council, who’ve published fire protection brochures and an evacuation map, and new county building and landscaping regulations, many Fallbrook homeowners appear to still be in denial.
An older home in De Luz is screened by huge pines. Their boughs, heavy with sap, touch the structure’s eaves.
Two businesses sit squarely in the middle of town, one with wooden sides that, if ignited, would radiate enough heat to incinerate its neighbor because of dry leaves on the neighbor’s roof. Another home along Mission Road is fronted by a stately row of Italian Cypress that would likely explode like Roman candles.
To make his point, Morel relates details of a recent fire in a new subdivision in Warner Springs where all the homes were saved except one planted with Italian Cypress. And hundreds of Mexican Fan Palms grow with abandon throughout Fallbrook – trees of which Morel says, “When their fronds burn, they whirl through the air like fans scattering embers.”
The voracious appetite of fire knows no boundaries once it begins to feed, and the unexpected freeze last winter left Fallbrook plant life as dry in June as it normally would be in August.
Brittle fire fuels push into every open space in North County: fields that need mowing, undeveloped wildland choked with dead brush and decayed trees and avocado and citrus groves left to die that surround isolated homes where people say, “It will never happen to me.”
Morel has every right to be concerned. Homeowners should be, too – especially those whose houses have gaping attic vents, deep open eaves that overhang porches or decks, dense plant life within 100 feet of their homes or outbuildings or those who live off rural one-lane roads where fire trucks can’t possibly travel safely.
The safety of firefighters is always on Morel’s mind. He calculates carefully the decision to send a fire crew into danger and when faced with a choice of properties where owners have taken precautions to reduce fire hazards and others who have not, says, “I’m going to protect the ones I’m going to be successful at protecting.” In some areas, homes are so remote they’d burn to the ground in the space of time it would take an engine and crew to reach them.
Despite an early warning system provided by the Fallbrook Fire Safe Council, Supervisor Bill Horn’s acquisition of a firefighting helicopter hangared at the Fallbrook Airpark and a $100,000 grant from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which permitted clearing of 180 acres of brush and debris that protected nearly 2,000 homes, more is needed.
Property owners need to know everything they can about preventing fires, and to ensure they know exactly how to interpret “prevention,” Morel created a “Homeowner’s Guide to Fuel Modification.” It graphically depicts easy-to-understand safety measures for creating defensible space that will help protect dwellings and provide a safety zone for firefighters in case of a fire. Free copies are in the NCFPD Fire Marshall’s office at 315 East Ivy Street.
“Identifying hazards is an important part of planning for wildfire and reducing the loss of lives and property,” says State Fire Marshall Kate Dargan. Hazards could be as simple as a parched field of native grasses, a pile of plant debris left to dry at a construction site, thickets of brush and trees in boulder-strewn barranca adjacent to a secluded home or highly flammable plants in home landscaping.
A look at the “Undesirable Plant List,” also available in the Fire Marshall’s office, reads like Fallbrook’s most popular plants. Firs and pines, palms, acacia, eucalyptus, pepper trees; California sagebrush and buckwheat; Algerian ivy, bamboo and fountain grasses are just a few. But even the “undesirable” trees can be used as long as they are treated as stand-alone species, trimmed up six feet from the ground with no dead leaf debris beneath them.
It’s important to know how to manage landscaping for fire prevention, too. Fire spreads in a ladder pattern: it leaps from burning deer grasses to resin-rich greasewood shrubs, to pines and spruce trees stressed by drought, then up and under open eaves and onto a non-fire-retardant roof then through attic vents, all the while flinging embers skyward. While this description may seem dramatic, firefighters have seen it happen, powerless to help despairing homeowners watch their home destroyed. It’s for this reason defensible spaces are needed between landscape plantings.
“A home landscape does not have to look like the surface of the moon,” Morel said, and merely complying with keeping plants 100 feet away from a structure, the use of single trees and shrubs spaced with clearance between them may make the difference between losing a home to fire and protecting it.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Morel recites. The famous saying has become his mantra. “Ben Franklin spoke those words when he organized Philadelphia’s first fire company.”
Preventing fires is less expensive than fighting them, in every way imaginable, Morel says, “With proper clearing, a fire dies.” And a foe is vanquished.