This time, Southern California was prepared for wildfires. Here’s how countless homes were saved

2019-11-02 11:47:36

LOS ANGELES — By this weekend, Southern Californians will have endured a string of wildfires – all without a massive loss of homes.

Considering how past wildfires swept through housing tracts or decimated multimillion-dollar hillside houses, it’s a victory of sorts. But how is it possible that so many wind-driven fires were beaten back last month with the loss of no more than a handful?

“The combo of really fantastic work by the first responders coupled with good defensible space and good building design and construction” is the explanation from Chris Dicus, professor of Wildland Fire and Fuels Management at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

And he’s quick to add that a dose of luck doesn’t hurt.

Several fires were still burning in Southern California, but none held the level of threat posed by those earlier in the week.

The most significant was the Maria Fire burning near the farming community of Santa Paula in Ventura County, which quickly topped nearly 14 square miles   Friday afternoon and resulted in evacuation orders for about 8,000 residents. It had destroyed two homes, but the worst of the winds had passed.

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The relatively minor housing losses come in contrast to hundreds that perished in past fires. Not only were thousands of homes in the fires’ paths protected over the past three weeks, but also saved were two of Southern California’s greatest treasures, the Getty Center art museum complex in Los Angeles and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

The Reagan library was in the path of the Easy Fire, which charred almost 3 square miles in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, with the loss of only a single home and an outbuilding, fire officials said.

The Hillside Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles claimed six houses. In the heart of the city, the Getty Fire in Los Angeles destroyed at 10 homes in a posh neighborhood but the famous museum and a private college were spared. It was held to just over 1 square mile. Earlier in October, the Saddle Ridge fire consumed almost 14 square miles and burned 19 structures near the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles.


But those losses stand in contrast to the Kinkade Fire in Northern California, which has burned 1,500 square miles and churned through 698 structures so far.

And earlier blazes in Southern California over the past five years have included the Woolsey Fire, which burned to the ocean in Malibu, blackening 151 square miles, destroying 1,643 structures and taking three lives.

Or the Thomas Fire nearly two year ago, which burned 440 square miles, leveled 1,063 structures and killed two people, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, known simply as Cal Fire.

Fire officials say this time, Southern California was prepared for the round of big winds. Ventura County fire officials say their aggressive efforts to require homeowners to chop down brush within 100 feet of homes made a difference.

“We apply very strict enforcement,” said department spokesman Scott Dettore.

Out-of-state fire crews, some from as far away as Utah and New Mexico, were already in Southern California. They and their engines were among those that could be pre-staged ahead of predicted Santa Ana winds, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Lucas Spelman. About 300 out-of-state fire engines and their crews are in California.

Air tankers and helicopters were on standby, ready to tackle fires within minutes of their ignition.

Some 324 fires were put out in a 24-hour period before the latest winds came, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters Tuesday in predicting that “absolutely, we are prepared” for the winds.

Turns out, for the most part, the state was ready.

In an otherwise nondescript building specially built to withstand earthquakes east of Los Angeles City Hall, a team of specialists worked around-the-clock this week to manage the wildfires for the city.

The $107-million Emergency Operations Center brings together experts from many facets of municipal government to carry out the orders of first responders, the mayor and other top officials in managing a crisis. They look at every aspect, from traffic control to blast emails to residents telling them to evacuate.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, the center was humming. About 30 employees were busy at work in a cavernous central room with displays on the wall that gave it the feeling of a war room, which it pretty much is.

Chris Ipsen, one of the center’s leaders, said the center is activated for any city emergency, whether it’s the fires or a big protest march. “Even small incidents can be crazy,” he said. 

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Aram Sahakian, the city’s emergency manager, refers to those who staff the center as  “unsung heroes” for the work they do behind the scenes. They map intersections that need to be closed, track down stables that can take refugee horses, llamas and other large animals help create evacuee centers within city buildings.

There’s even a team that keeps a running tally of how much a whole operation is costing.

Text messages and other warnings are blasted out to let people know trouble is headed their way. Jennifer Lazo, an EOC agency representative, is part of the team that composes them and they are sent out in a way that can reach all smartphones in a designated area. She might advise residents in a fire area to get ready to evacuate, to get out immediately or let them know where to find shelters.

“We don’t make command decisions in here. We support them,” said fire Battalion Chief Doug Zabilski.

But this week, that support was the kind of preparation that appeared to be paying off.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California fires: Preparation saved thousands of homes, Getty museum

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