18 November 2008

Firestorm in Carbon Canyon, Part III

This morning at 10 a.m., those of us in the Chino Hills side of Carbon Canyon west of Valley Springs Road were permitted to return to our homes as the threat from the Triangle Complex fire was significantly abated.

Last night, courtesy of Sleepy Hollow resident and press photographer, Jose Fernandez, we were able to see professionally-taken images of just how precarious the situation was over late Saturday night and into Sunday morning in the canyon as a whole, as Jose was able to reach Olinda Village, Sleepy Hollow, Western Hills Oaks, Oak Tree Downs, Vellano and other affected neighborhoods in and around the canyon. This was at a briefing conducted by fire, police, and city officials in Chino Hills and Jose's images compellingly showed that, ultimately, any impulse by residents, however sincere and well-intended, to stay behind and fight for their homes, there was no way any resident or group of residents was going to save houses by themselves. By (no) comparison, some of my amateur snapshots appear above. The one with the fire truck was taken from Canyon Hills Road at Carbon Canyon Road looking south toward Red Apple Lane. The view at the top is looking at the area between Sleepy Hollow and Mountain View Estates (Canon Lane area). The other two views show sections just over the county line into Brea, including a detail of a totally burned and denuded hill and the other showing the region of Lion Canyon heading toward the Hill of Hope religious compound, which is at the upper right.

The only way that was going to happen was with a well-planned, highly-coordinated, professional approach to fire fighting. There were some Sleepy Hollow residents who stated that fire fighters had left their area and that they used fire hoses remaining there to fight flames descending from the hillside above. That may well be true, but the insinuation was that there was a deliberate lack of response by fire fighting crews in that part of the neighborhood, which seems patently ridiculous. Nor for that matter should residents be encouraged to stay, as one man put it, to assist in the firefight.

Most "laypeople" have no knowledge, training, or understanding the dynamics of fires and would, therefore, be powerless to deal with the worse manifestations of it. Moreover, well-meaning residents would be as likely to be an obstruction to the necessary response as anything else and complicate deploying resources when that time to flee had come, as it would for so many. All too often, the direction(s) of fires are unpredictable and subject to abrupt and dramatic shifts that require a professional response and, even then, as has been seen in recent fires, even highly trained fire personnel can get caught in a firestorm. How, then, can we expect civilians to handle similar situations or know what to do when the unexpected happens?

Hundreds of fire fighters, most from areas far removed from our own, risked their lives and put up a tremendous effort in a battle that led to the preservation of every single house in Sleepy Hollow and other Chino Hills-area sections of the canyon. Were mistakes made? Undoubtedly, but who on earth would expect that there would be none at all? One only need to talk a walk around Sleepy Hollow and the neighborhoods off Canon Lane and Valley Springs Road, much less see the significantly greater devastation on the Brea side, to see just how close we came to being inundated and overwhelmed, if this fire had started here! Of course, some venting at these meetings is to be expected when people are tired, frustrated and, in some cases, already primed to let off steam for whatever reason. To complain, however, about not being let back in at certain times, for example, is just plain unreasonable.

To be sure, better information-providing structures could be set up or current ones improved. As an example, the City of Chino Hills website was lacking in current information. When, though, one compares current efforts to what happened in 1990, when 14 homes were destroyed in Sleepy Hollow in a conflagration that took place under somewhat similar circumstances, the reality is that the difference is truly night and day. Having said that, the 1990 fire started in this canyon and this is a point I made yesterday morning and bears repeating once more (and maybe a few times):

If this fire had started in Carbon Canyon, with drought-caused fuel conditions, wind, heat, and low humidity, there would have been many homes lost because the kind of response we had after 17 hours and many miles of this fire coming from Corona would have been impossible.

Moreover, as I said before (and will again):

The prospect of 367 new homes (and 1,000+ more people) in the canyon at Canyon Crest, Pine Valley Estates, Canyon Hills, and Stonefield will only exacerbate the problem, not diminish it.

The human and financial costs are enormous in their potential. The response by authorities will be lengthened. If we have conditions at or near the current ones, the best built homes will be suspect to fires of incredible heat and concentration. As has been stated over and over by students of the wildland-urban intersection, as long as we continue to build homes in rugged areas susceptible to wildfires, these problems will grow worse, not lessen. And, once again, we have to admit context into the discussion by layering this issue on top of some many others: traffic, pollution, waste disposal, school attendance and funding, loss of open space and habitat.

I had a discussion today in which the issue came up of: why should I be able to live here, but deny others the same opportunity? While the question is certainly legitimate in the face of demands for placing a premium on property rights over and above community interests, I think the answer is actually quite simple: there are limits, subject to the list of issues (and likely more) that are listed above.

We can't keep adding the number of people that we have been, throughout the Los Angeles Region, much less in Carbon Canyon. We cannot provide for the needs, demands, and contingencies that go along with nearly unfettered growth in comparison with the oft-cited benefits. As I said yesterday, I can live with limited growth in the form of small projects that would, most likely, have to be determined on a case-by-case basis rather than a generalized and arbitrary set of criteria in terms of numbers of units. But, what we can't live with is adding the number of houses that are in process or proposal right now. It makes living in the Canyon, broadly speaking and for the long term, ultimately unsustainable as is the case with any significant level of development in any area that forms the wildland-urban interface.

I and the others who live in the canyon took a calculated risk and, hopefully, have accepted the potential consequences of that, but there are limits and we reached those, actually, some time ago throughout southern California, much less here. Why don't these increasing incidences of fire and the threat that waits for the 7.7 or greater earthquake (which, incidentally, we have not experienced since 1857 when there were only several thousand people living in the Los Angeles region) have a greater resonance when it comes to planning decisions, not to mention traffic, pollution, infrastructure strain, etc. as has already been mentioned?

Because private property rights have been winning since the 1880s and reasonable conservation and preservation has to be won through immense struggling and straining to even mildly mitigate the excesses of overdevelopment. The signs of the latter are everywhere, including in the ruins of hundreds of homes, the charred landscape of tens of thousands of acres, and the tired, frustrated, and worried faces of tens of thousands of people.
Consider this: most of the units in Corona, Yorba Linda, and Anaheim Hills that lie in the narrow funnel for the Santa Ana wind system called Santa Ana Canyon did not exist twenty-five years ago. When I lived in that area, there was essentially nothing from Imperial Highway east and look how much was lost this time. I'll say it again:

Carbon Canyon would have been devastated if the fire had started here, not miles and hours away in Corona.

Sorry for the repetition, but sometimes that's the only way people learn.

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