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Does development hinder firefighting efforts?

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

San Diego
Fire closes in on a school under construction in the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego, California, during October’s wildfires.

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(CNN) -- Catastrophic wildfires occur regularly in California, but last year was exceptionally bad.

Historian Mike Davis makes the case that irresponsible development in California increases the risks of such fires, causes the state to throw public money upon the problem and possibly endangers the lives of firefighters.

What does a longtime firefighter think of this viewpoint? Jim Wright, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, lends some support to Davis' arguments.

Both Davis and the department back controlled burning, the intentional setting of fire to deplete fuel -- often dried vegetation -- to prevent a bigger blaze.

But Davis says controlled burning is scarcely practiced in California. Wright, who has conducted aggressive controlled burns, admits the opportunities are diminishing due to development.

What's done instead? Vegetation management. If firefighters can't burn it off, the fallback is to remove mechanically the underbrush by "ball and chaining" it, then chopping it up.

The state also uses wood-chipper grants to help, Wright says. This administrator, working county meetings, has little leverage over outdated or ineffective local codes and practices. The state is reduced to passing out wood chippers to groups that will make use of them and teaching such groups to respect the land.

Controlling wildfire's perimeter key

When incident commanders arrive at a wildfire, they are responsible for sizing up the fuel and burn conditions, weather and the terrain, Wright says.

These commanders ask such questions as "What's the plan of attack?" "What resources are necessary?" "Is there a natural fire break, such as a road, river or lake, to define the perimeter?"

The battle to control a wildfire's perimeter -- the line at which firefighters dig in and take a stand -- is fundamental. The idea is to envelop it, catch up with the "head" and stop or turn its advance and work the flanks of the fire from the "heel."

At some point, there's probably a wide-open, direct attack with hose, engine lines and tankers, preferably from behind a fire line.

But what happens with neighborhoods inside that strategic perimeter? According to Wright, the perimeter must be extended in to wall off the houses, requiring extra manpower.

And what if that perimeter doesn't hold, and there's house-to-house fighting? First, the houses need to be foamed or gelled, Wright says, which is costly. Then a five-engine deployment may no longer suffice. A 25-engine deployment, plus a commitment of leadership to make the force cohesive, may be needed, he says.

Also important is "circulation," Wright says, referring to the ability of firefighting traffic to move about at the scene of a blaze. A run-of-the-mill gated community needs perhaps two emergency gates and roads to stave off a panicked evacuation pileup, he says.

But developers are often loathe to sacrifice profit from the two or three houses fewer that might be required to accommodate those roads, Wright says.

One of the areas hardest hit by fires in the fall was Scripps Ranch, an expensive neighborhood near San Diego built in the mid-1980s. Despite the costs of building these homes, many of them don't include features that would make them more fire resistant. Most of them have wood shingle roofs, which help fires to spread faster.

Wright says the most encouraging stories are of newer developments whose builders and homeowners have learned from the fires of others.

Still, questions remain about whether development is bad for firefighting.

On the one hand, good practices mean good roads and infrastructure to fight wildfires. But Wright says it's clear that bad development choices make firefighting more dangerous.

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