Area – Risk – Mitigation Proposal
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF / CalFire) classifies the San Bernardino Mountains as a high fire hazard severity zone, an understanding shared by the U.S.F.S. firefighting division, San Bernardino County Fire and the local community fire agencies. Because of this understanding huge amounts of money and resources are committed to this area in an effort to reduce the risk of catastrophic losses to our communities from fires.
The science of understanding fires in the wildland-urban-interface has made significant progress since 1990. Just like every earthquake offers scientists valuable new learning experiences that help save structures and lives in a future quake, every fire provides new and important information on how best to protect valuable real assets, lives and improve the safety of firefighters.
Among the communities in the San Bernardino Mountains some face additional risk defining challenges, such as geographic location (slope, canyon), vegetation density (chaparral brush, trees), housing density, available access (width of streets, dead end streets, escape routes), available fire flow (number of fire hydrants, water flow quantity and pressure). Within the service area of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council all communities, except the newer developed tracts of Arrowhead Woods, are affected by these additional challenges.
A challenge does not imply surrender to a difficult problem or situation. A challenge demands a creative approach to solving the issues defining the challenge. This is what the Arrowhead Community Fire Safe Council proposes to do for the Arrowhead Villas.
The Arrowhead Villas are nestled against a steep northern slope shaded by a severely overstocked, dense forest that descends towards Lake Arrowhead. Founded in 1925, the Arrowhead Villas were created as a vacation retreat. The property lot sizes are small with houses standing very close to each other. In addition one finds very narrow streets with tight turns. Little or no thought was directed to fire safety in the initial planning of the community. The combination of these aspects define the Arrowhead Villas a special high-risk area in an already high fire hazard severity zone.
A significant fire threat to the community emanates from various possible sources, such as a wind driven wildfire approaching from the south, crossing Hwy. 18 between the Ranger Station and Skyforest; a wildfire approaching the community from its western or eastern flanks; a community born structural fire in either Lake Arrowhead or the Arrowhead Villas that spreads to other structures and the forest under Santa Ana wind conditions; a vehicle fire after an accident on Kuffel Canyon; lightning triggered fire within the community.
The Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council will focus its attention and resources to two proven methods of risk mitigation that already demonstrated their effectiveness during the Grass Valley Fire in Deer Lodge Park.
While the artistically crafted wooden street signs have character, which help define the Arrowhead Villas’ uniqueness, they are not regulation street signs as stipulated by California or federal code. In the event of a major emergency, fire or earthquake, our local first responders (Fire, Sheriff and CHP) will see a rapid and significant influx of outside reinforcements. For example, at 6:15 am during the start of the Grass Valley Fire the first San Bernardino fire engine took position at Grass Valley Road and Brentwood Drive and Sheriff and CHP units from down the hill were assisting in the evacuation of Deer Lodge Park. Of course these firefighters or law enforcement officers are not familiar with the area and are depended on street signs to find their way around. However, they are familiar with and expect to see the signs they know from their communities because they are code. These signs are green and have the street name spelled in silver reflective lettering.
During a major emergency, our senses go into a hyper state of awareness, which can be quite stressful even for those trained to master such situations. During a major emergency every second counts. It is because of this that the ACFSC plans on installing regulation street signs at all street intersections in the Arrowhead Villas. In addition we plan on installing directional signs that point the shortest way to Arrowhead Villas Road – the only escape route out of the community, and identify dead-end streets.
The characteristic wooden street signs will not be removed. However, we will install the new signs closer to the intersections on 8 and 10 feet poles to stand above snow in the winter. These signs will be the first that any first responder sees, regardless of smoke, fog or nighttime conditions.
The ACFSC was asked if we could also install signs prohibiting street parking on particularly narrow sections of roads to facilitate the passage of wide fire engines and ambulances. While such signs certainly have merit and can save lives, they are restriction signs, as opposed to information signs, and need to go through a defined legal process in order to be placed. The ACFSC encourages the Arrowhead Villas to further investigate this matter on the county level.
As stated above, the steep slopes of the Arrowhead Villas are severely overstocked with trees, thus representing an unhealthful and, for this climatic region, unnatural forest. The tree density in some areas is astounding. Fir and pine trees with a trunk diameter of one to three inches, but six to eight feet tall stand only a foot apart; never to have a chance of becoming a real tree, but perfect fuel for a fire and a perfect fuel to send flames, so called ladder fuels, up into majestic old growth trees. Seedlings of incense cedars growing as thick as weeds and in fierce competition for scarce resources like water, nutrients and light; more than half will die before they reach 10 years of age. Conditions like this spell disaster in the event of a fire, not only for the homes within the community, but also for mature trees and the wildlife habitat they offer. This is especially true for the gorgeous old growth cedars, coulter pines, sugar pines, oaks and white firs. Without that thicket of undergrowth, a fire that exposes them to strong radiant heat for only a few brief moments will not destroy the majestic old trees.
Unfortunately the ACFSC’s grant conditions do not permit us to do fuels reduction work on private properties for the benefit of individual residents. Residents interested in creating healthy and fire resistant stands of trees on their properties should turn to the Forest Care program offered by the San Bernardino National Forest Association.
However, the ACFSC will use its resources to pursue a fuels reduction strategy that has proven valuable on access roads during the Grass Valley Fire and received special recognition by top fire officials. Under the guidelines established for this effort, we would significantly reduce the fuels overload within six to eight feet on either side of community streets. Six feet is a reasonable criterion that makes sense on most streets and on most improved properties. Eight feet of careful thinning makes sense for unimproved vacant lots or those properties that are in terrible neglect.
Our guidelines, developed in cooperation with the Arrowhead Woods Architectural Committee, CalFire’s Forest Care program, and fire fighting experts, focus entirely on trees that are smaller than 12 inches in diameter at a height of 54 inches (4 ½ feet). In other words, they primarily address the dense undergrowth while protecting old growth trees. Under these parameters we would open up the tree canopy to create fire breaks and defensible space; we would also significantly increase the safety margin for firefighters coming to protect our homes – in case the fire threatens to overrun their positions they would not have to retreat through a wall of flames.
Mature trees or trees of special value, like dogwood, fruit trees or ornamental trees, will receive special consideration and treatment. Their removal is usually not required in the effort to achieve the goal. However, and if necessary, these trees will receive careful pruning to keep them from growing into the street. Branches impeding a 15 feet vertical clearance over the street will be cut back to the trunk of the tree. This will ensure that a fire engine can pass without hitting branches and prevents damage to the tree. Bushes like lilac, rhododendron and roses, as well as flowers, are excluded from this program
Trees under Edison high voltage power lines that get topped repeatedly and without consideration to arborist standards will also be removed. Unfortunately such trees can only survive for a few years before dying from wound absorbed fungus creating core rot, lack of foliage required for photosynthesis or insect infestation. Out of the 12 major blazes in the October 2007 southern California firestorm downed power lines started five. Therefore, it makes no sense to preserve weakened or dying trees under power lines.
Special consideration will be given to removing tree stumps that impede onto streets. Stumps left behind from bark beetle killed pines and firs will be extracted or ground up; of course, the same applies to trees removed in this program. This helps fire engines to easier negotiate the narrow roads, bends and intersections. It also helps the snow plowing effort in the winter by reducing the risk of damage to plows from stumps buried under the snow.
Wherever possible our contractors will chip slash from the fuels reduction effort at the location and spread the wood chips on slopes for erosion control. Larger diameter wood we would like to cut up into firewood size rounds and make them available to interested residents.
All of the contractors employed by the ACFSC for its fuels reduction programs are state licensed and carry all applicable liability and workman’s compensation insurance. They are also specially trained to participate in the San Bernardino National Forest Association’s Forest Care program and understand the importance of applying sound forestry practice rules.
Necessary road closures or travel restrictions due to equipment on the road or tree felling hazards will be announced in advance to affected residents and local first responders. The ACFSC’s director of operations lives in the area and will be available for questions before, during and after this important fuels reduction effort.
Bernhard O. Voelkelt
ACFSC Director of Operations
(909) 337 – 7920