PASADENA, Calif. -- Last year's Southern California firestorms in October of 2003 will go down in the state's history as one of the worst fire seasons on record with eight major fires burning more than 1,000 square miles, destroying 3,600 homes and claiming 23 lives. What will not go down in the record books is the fact that thousands of homes were saved not only because of the heroic efforts of firefighters, but because of the numerous Firewise techniques that were implemented by communities throughout the region.
"Out of 1,000 homes we consulted in Southern California about fire prevention techniques, only one house burned," said Richard Montague, a former fire chief and President of Firewise 2000, Inc. Montague works as a consultant for the national Firewise Communities program, a multi-agency effort designed to reach beyond the fire service by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, insurance and real estate agents and others to protect people, property and natural resources from the wildland fire before it starts.
As a part of Firewise's nationwide effort to minimize wildland fire risk, the Firewise Communities program, The California Fire Alliance and the Greater San Diego County Fire Safe Council will host the San Diego Firewise Communities Workshop on Feb. 24 and 25 at the Doubletree Golf Resort in San Diego.
The Firewise workshop series approach offers tools and frameworks to enable community members to work together to solve basic community development planning issues at the local level.
"The workshop is an interactive approach for homeowners, insurers, community leaders, fire service representatives, architects and developers to plan and implement basic fire-resistant community practices through Firewise concepts," said workshop coordinator Mike Rogers.
One of the communities saved by Firewise concepts last October was a brand new housing development east of downtown San Diego.
"The fire was moving so fast we only had a few minutes to evacuate," said Dan LaCrue, who, with his wife Sandra, had only lived in Talon's Reach for two months when the development came under siege in late October 2003. After the firestorm had passed, only one house out of 33 was destroyed.
"Because there were so many fires at the time, when we evacuated there were no firefighters on the scene," said LaCrue.
Some of those Firewise practices incorporated in Talon's Reach included screening of all vents, the tops of chimneys, concrete tile roofs, double pane glass windows, brush and shrubs thinned back to a minimum of 100 feet, and stucco eaves that were very tight so embers could not lodge between them. Even the bottom half of LaCrue's house had a man-made rock siding that served as a fuel break.
"It's usually not the flames that consume the structures," stressed Montague, "it's the thousands of embers that swarm around the houses landing on vegetation, getting caught in the eaves, or descending down the chimney. Other times it's the windows breaking from the heat, allowing the embers to enter the house."
As the population continues to migrate from urban centers into suburbs of former rural areas, many more people find themselves in the path of wildland fires. Eight out of the 10 fastest-growing states in the country are in the interior West. The average annual population growth is about one percent, while the West is growing at a rate of 2.5 percent to 13 percent. Initiated in 1999, the Firewise Communities program has held 33 workshops around the country in response to the growing number of wildland urban interface fires.
According to Montague, one of the major misconceptions people have that move from a metropolitan area into the wildland/urban interface is that they believe they are going to be protected by firefighters as resourcefully as when they were in the city...