Preparation F

If reports that Southern California leaders were not adequately prepared to deal with the first big fires of this fall season sound familiar, that's because they are. The Los Angeles Times, and in particularly its editorial board, has been pointing out the area's dangerous flammability for a long time, but a look back at the paper's coverage over the last century and a quarter leaves a wise reader with some important food for thought:

• It's easier to call for fire preparedness than to be prepared;

• There are many competitors for the title of Worst Fire Ever;

• People don't appreciate firefighters enough;

• Preparedness and firefighting keep getting better, but are never quite enough;

• When you refer to the Great Malibu Fire, try to be more specific.

The tape:

December 19, 2004

Bland Role in San Diego Drama Fine With Mayor During last year's wildfires, as flames raced across the county for nearly a week, [San Diego Mayor Dick] Murphy held multiple news conferences to report the progress of firefighters in saving homes. Wearing a yellow Fire Department slicker, he was unwavering in his message: It's a dangerous situation, but we have good people working on it. No one would confuse Murphy with Rudolph Giuliani's commanding performance in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, but Murphy's steady message of "Don't panic; we'll get through this" was later praised.

December 28, 2003

NIGHT OF FIRE The deadly Cedar blaze's speed and ferocity repeatedly surprised officials, who were outmatched from the start. ... In Poway, Chief Mark Sanchez had 15 firefighters to protect the city's 49,000 residents.[...] Sanchez had been lending out men and equipment for days: one engine at the Camp Pendleton fire, one in Rancho Cucamonga and one in San Bernardino. And Sanchez had sent one of his five remaining engines to Country Estates earlier that night. "I called San Diego for resources," Sanchez said. "They had nobody." The city of San Diego's Fire Department was in poor shape to help anyone. With 880 firefighters and officers, 57 engines and 11 brush units, San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of firefighters to residents of any large city in the United States. Elected officials have repeatedly rejected proposals to pay for an expanded force, despite warnings the city was unprepared for a serious fire.

December 24, 2000

For the Givers Among Us, Thanks One year ago, hundreds of firefighters and law enforcement officers spent Christmas Eve away from their families because they were battling a stubborn wildfire in the hills above Ojai. Last week, many of them were in action again, fighting smaller but no less worrisome fires near Fillmore and Ventura. The vigilance, training and willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the people of Ventura County safe represent a profound gift for which the community too rarely expresses its gratitude.

Sunday November 3, 1996

Conservancy's Courage Under Fire Over the past 16 years, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has become adept at doing more with less. Usually that resourcefulness takes the shape of cobbling together big tracts of parkland with virtually no money. But as last month's wildfire marched from Calabasas to Malibu, conservancy workers skillfully prevented flames from devouring the agency's historic compound in Solstice Canyon. This measure of preparedness was no accident. In 1993, fire had ravaged conservancy buildings as unprepared workers waited for overloaded firefighters to find them. This time, the story was different. Thanks to a little training and a little extra equipment, destruction was avoided and the public's investment was protected. Conservancy workers spent entire nights with their refurbished equipment to ensure the flames did not spread.

October 22, 1996

Malibu Gets a Grim Sequel to Fires of '93 Karen Dumas, 52, started loading her car hours before the flames moved toward her Malibu Bowl-area home. But when it was time to drive it away, the fire had cut off her escape. Her husband was less practical — and resigned to it. "We discovered we were woefully unprepared," said Larry Dumas, 65. "My gloves are for the birds," he said as he wiggled his fingers through holes in his gloves. "My ladder is no good. But you know, if we have to go through this again sometime, I probably won't do any better."

Sunday October 30, 1994

Fighting Fire With Fire The good news is that public cooperation locally in terms of brush clearance has greatly improved. As of October, fewer than 1% of the wild land parcels patrolled by county fire officials were considered overgrown. And Los Angeles city officials have nearly doubled their inspections of fire hazards in vacant lots. Those on the fire lines figure to be better prepared than ever as well, with water-carrying Super Scooper airplanes now stationed at Van Nuys Airport, with fire engines now outfitted with swimming pool siphons, and with National Guard C-130 airplanes available within 13 hours instead of the usual 24 hours. After four Los Angeles city firefighters were badly burned in a blaze near Chatsworth last year, firefighters also are being equipped with more safety gear. Unfortunately, it may not be enough to prevent or quickly contain another conflagration. That's why federal officials are changing course, and why the preventive efforts of citizens and local officials have never been more important.

September 5, 1994

Fire Bill — Pay Now or Pay Later: Yes, "Super Scooper" costs a lot, but a killer wildfire costs much, much more Los Angeles County prudently has committed $250,000 to lease one of the aircraft for a month. On the state level, Gov. Pete Wilson steadfastly has refused to support a Super Scooper test program at a time when the state is ailing financially. However, Wilson should listen to Richard Andrews, his director of emergency services, who now says "the time has come for new tests of the Super Scooper." Andrews' recommendation is sound. The problem is, recommendations made in the wake of a disaster all too often wind up being ignored--until the next disaster. Wilson should sign legislation--now unfortunately stripped of funding--that would allow state testing of the Super Scooper. Of course the bill won't mean much without funding: Finding that money should be a top priority for both the governor and the Legislature. One way or another, the expense will be borne: Pay now for better equipment and training or pay later in terms of heavier losses in the next major wildfire.

November 4, 1993

The Seemingly Endless Cycle of Destruction and Growth: We have to be better prepared when the inevitable comes Obviously government needs to continually upgrade its firefighting capability. One tool that local agencies must now reconsider is the "Super Scooper," a Canadian-made plane that can swoop down over water, load 1,600 gallons in 12 seconds and then roar off to dump it on a fire. Advocates of the plane have pressed for its use in California since 1970. Last year the Legislature authorized $1.5 million to lease one Super Scooper plane to test in fighting wildfires near urban areas. It was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson on the advice of state fire experts who consider the plane too expensive and not as useful as water-dropping helicopters. But that decision is questionable, and Sacramento must revisit the issue. There may also be a role for the free market in determining how much rebuilding is done in fire-ravaged canyons. Early reports indicate that the California Fair Plan, a special insurance industry fund to share the burden of insuring homes and businesses in high-risk areas, may not have enough reserves to cover the cost of the recent fires. A plan spokesman estimate that more than 18,000 homes are covered in the affected areas. Clearly the insurance industry can have a great deal of influence in making sure that any homes rebuilt in canyon areas have fire-resistant roofs and adequate access for firefighters and are far enough from brush to be reasonably safe in a wildfire. Southern California's age-old cycle of drought, heavy rains, prolific growth of brush and then — inevitably — fire is not going to let up for our convenience. So we must be ready to live with it and be much better prepared for it if we are to stay in a region that is, at once, both blessed and cursed by nature.

Saturday June 30, 1990

A SIEGE OF FIRE Many residents said they had been putting off such preparations for years. Not anymore.[...] Even while fires continued to burn in Santa Barbara, and more ignited Friday in Acton and Elizabeth Lake, calls poured in to fire prevention officers, roofing companies and even sprinkler firms from skittish residents who escaped this time, but don't want to risk being a victim during the next firestorm.

February 3, 1989

Getting Ready California can play a big role in the disaster-mitigation effort. Gov. George Deukmejian has issued a proclamation supporting the work, and California's building codes already are models used around the world. Californians would be better prepared, however, if the state could afford more of the seismic-safety work needed on public buildings, particularly at its large universities. Preparing in advance for disaster can have a real payoff. For example, more than 250,000 people died and thousands more lost their homes in 1976 when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Tangshan, China. In 1985 a quake of the same magnitude struck near Valparaiso, Chile, where 1 million people live. Only 150 died. Valparaiso's buildings had more modern seismic design.

November 4, 1966

In Praise of Many Brave Men All faced the danger, the hardship of fighting windswept flames under a blazing sun or in hostile darkness. They knew the risk, but they did not hesitate when they were needed.

September 7, 1957

Fire Hazard These weeks are called the peak of the fire season, but this is not necessarily the case. Here in Southern California brush and forest fire hazard remain high throughout most of the year; our worst conflagration of last year, the Malibu fire, occurred during the Christmas season.

October 21, 1954

Smog and the Incinerators The action of the Board of Supervisors in ordering an end to back-yard rubbish burning at the end of a year may have been quite proper, but at first glance it seems to have been taken under heavy, and perhaps somewhat hysterical, pressure.

May 31, 1942

The Fag Bag and the Woods and the War The "Fag Bag," happy invention introduced last year to help save wooded areas from smokers, is to be relied upon again this year in the effort to preserve the brush and tree-covered slopes of California — a year in which such protection is more than ever imperative. The "Fag Bag" is a small muslin sack in which all who enter dangerous sections are required to inclose their cigarettes. The drawstrings are tagged with a pledge not to smoke in a prohibited areas, and the bag and pledge serve as an automatic reminder to bring the absent-minded to a realization of what they are doing.

April 3, 1923

FOREST-FIRE MENACE Every advance made by Southern California implies a correspondingly heavier demand on our water supply. Every area of timber and brush land in the mountains denuded by flames diminishes the value of the watershed. It stands to reason that we cannot continue to augment the number of water users and at the same time burn up our natural reservoirs.[...] In California, through Federal, State and county organization, our people have made the care of our watersheds everybody's business. If we fail in that duty the onus of blame will rest on the individual citizen.

Sep 24, 1919

FOREST FIRE PROBLEMS Finally it has happened. It has been clear to the mind of every mountaineer that some day a terrible conflagration would break out in the forest reserves and sweep the watersheds. At this time no one can accurately gauge the appetite of this roaring monster of flame, but it seems apparent that the worst fire in the recent history of Southern California is being burned into the records.[...] Ordinarily no one gets into the remote fastnesses of mountains except experienced woodsmen. But so close is this forest to Los Angeles that the clerks in the shops may quit at Saturday noon and be in the wilderness before sunset. A city-bred man loose with a match in a canyon whose dry vegetation is like tinder, presents rather an appalling problem.

November 14, 1908

HOW DO FOREST FIRES START? By quickening communication between important points by telephone lines and building roads and trails, the national forests have been made more accessible during the past two years and fire-fighting has been greatly facilitated. No mistake has been made in the government's appropriations for this purpose, though the money might have been more economically expended.

June 11, 1900

OBJECT LESSONS IN FORESTRY [T]he people of Southern California, where so much depends upon our water supply, ought to be more earnest and more active than they are in promoting measures to preserve our mountain forests. Gratifying progress has been made in this direction, and the interest of the Federal Government has been enlisted to an encouraging degree, but the danger point has not yet passed. Information comes from the mountains that there will be greater danger from forest fires than usual this year, on account of the unusual growth of grass and underbrush. [...] On the 1st of July the number of forest patrolmen in the San Gabriel region will be increased to fifteen. Careful attention to duty on their part ought to render that portion of our forests reasonably safe from danger.

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