It's been almost a month since the Sawtooth scare. That 61,700 acre blaze is fully contained and the Heart-Millard fire is 75 percent contained. Are you prepared for the next one?
Do your home and property have buffer zones around them? Are you familiar with defensible space? If not, you should be, say fire officials. Defensible space can mean the difference between saving your home or not if a wildfire burns through the community.
As the Sawtooth Complex and Millard fires burned around the Valley, creating defensible space gained popularity. Residents and property owners hurried to trim weeds, cut back or eliminate ladder fuels, move the wood pile and cut down the dead trees in the yard. That's good, say Dana Van Leuven and John Morley, but defensible space and creating a healthy forest need to be concepts taken seriously year-round not just during the excitement of a brush fire. Van Leuven is the chief for Big Bear City Fire Department and Morley is the chief at Big Bear Lake Fire Department. During the early days of the Sawtooth Complex Fire, they sat down to talk about creating a fire safe community.
Defensible space is a lifestyle that especially those who choose to live in the mountains must subscribe to, Van Leuven and Morley say. It's more than thinning dead trees from the forest. “We have to change the mentality of what a healthy forest looks like,” Van Leuven says. “It's OK to cut live vegetation.”
Morley agrees. “Live trees and brush burn, too,” Morley says.
The problem is that people believe by removing the trees in the forest damaged by the bark beetle infestation and drought, the problem is solved. It's a total package, and a healthy forest doesn't stop at the boundary. “Homes are built into it,” Van Leuven says. “It's all one thing and there isn't a magic break.”
“We've saved the forest to death,” Van Leuven says about the opposition for many years to thinning vegetation to create a healthy forest. While the Forest Service has completed some and is continuing with fuels treatment projects on the forest, in reality only a small percentage of the work that needs to be done is complete, Morley says.
Historically, low intensity fires kept the forest thin and healthy. Suppression efforts increased as population centers grew, and the forest tree population also grew. With hundreds of trees per acre, the forest resembles a city bursting at the seams with a population it can't support. Trees, brush and wildlife struggle to survive.
Lake Arrowhead and its surrounding communities hit hard during the Old Fire in 2003 are perfect examples of saving a forest to an unhealthy state, Van Leuven says. Mother Nature took over and took care of thinning the forest herself, he says.
A healthy forest package includes not only the forest but also vacant lots and residential property, Van Leuven says.
“Homes are fuel,” Morley says. The ignitability of homes needs to be considered. Things like eliminating shake shingle roofs, using fire retardent paint and other fire prevention construction methods are also part of the package, Morley says.
New construction standards have been and continue to be approved to provide for fire safe construction. Morley says there are noncombustible sidings on the market that are attractive and make sense in his opinion. And while the cost of fire safe construction may be slightly higher, the cost of a destructive fire is more, Morley says. “Losing everything means a lot of broken hearts,” Morley says. “If there were a devastating fire here, how long would it take to rebuild the beauty we have now?”
The state has developed standards for construction of homes and buildings within urban-wildland interface areas, Van Leuven says. Those standards will be implemented sequentially during the next few years.
Creating defensible space can seem like a daunting project, Morley says. Take little steps, like raking a bag of pine needles each week. Don't try to tackle everything in one day, he says.
The fire departments can help, the chiefs say. They will send someone to your home to offer guidelines and recommendations on creating defensible space.
Right now there is funding available to assist homeowners with fuels reduction projects through the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Forest Care. But once those dollars are gone, property owners are responsible again, Morley says. We need a good healthy environment to prevent a bark beetle epidemic from invading the community again. Healthy trees stand a better chance of survival during drought and bark beetle attacks, Van Leuven says.
The time to do fuels treatment is before fires, Morley says. Information and help is available but unless you act on it, it's useless, he adds. Big Bear can become a model community with its proactive approach, Morley says.
Creating that fire safe community can mean eliminating those calls from potential visitors wanting to know if Big Bear is still standing, if Big Bear is safe to visit, Van Leuven says. People will be confident they are entering a community that is safe because it took a proactive approach. “It takes everybody to make it happen,” Van Leuven says.
Contact reporter Judi Bowers at 909-866-3456, ext. 137 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.