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Calif. Firefighters Rush To Get Ahead Of Early Fire Season

The Summit Fire burned hot and fast up the Banning Pass area, near Beaumont, Calif., on May 1, leaving a moonscape in its wake. Houses that had cleared brush and wood from around their property were left unscathed.
Nathan Rott

Fire season is off to an early start in the West. Across California, a hot and dry spring has fire crews on alert. Northeast of Los Angeles, thousands of firefighters are making progress toward controlling the so-called Powerhouse Fire, which has burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed several homes.

And with no rain in sight, firefighters are out readying homes for a particularly bad year.

Engine 3160, a wild-land firetruck in Beaumont, Calif., already has that recent fire smell. But on a recent afternoon, it wasn't heading to a fire line. Instead, it was on its way to a "defensible space inspection," explained Will Bryant, a captain with the state's firefighting corps, Cal Fire.

That term is firefighter-speak for an area around a home or property that is cleared or thinned of wood piles, brush — pretty much anything that can catch fire.

"Defensible space helps us do our jobs by ensuring that [people's] homes are more protected in the event that a fire comes through," Bryant said.

Creating A Buffer To Help Slow Fires

Which is why in California, where nearly 1 million people live in locations threatened by wildfire, defensible space is required by law. In areas the state is responsible for, like the house-dotted hills and chute canyons that make up Beaumont and its surroundings, homeowners need to clear all flammable vegetation within 30 feet of their home and reduce the vegetation an additional 70 feet from that, forming a 100-foot buffer.

Engine 3160 pulled up in front of a house in a golden-grass field with views of the distant peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. Homeowner Steve Romberg was waiting with Julie Hutchinson, another Cal Fire worker. Bryant and Hutchinson were there to check on the clearing Romberg had done on his property.

"If you don't mind, we'll just take a quick walk around your house and I can take a look at stuff," Bryant said. "Kind of point out what might need to be worked at."

The point of these inspections isn't so much to be strict disciplinarians. It's to teach homeowners the basics of fire behavior and how to protect their home during one. Cal Fire is also sharing checklists of fire-prevention tips with property owners.

Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief with California's firefighting corps, Cal Fire, says she's seeing fire activity usually not seen before late summer.
Nathan Rott / NPR
Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief with California's firefighting corps, Cal Fire, says she's seeing fire activity usually not seen before late summer.

"With any type of fire, once it hits that short stubby grass it slows down real easily and it's really easy to ... protect your structure if needed," Hutchinson explained.

This may not sound like rocket science — and it's not. For Romberg, it's old news. "I've lived here for a while and I've kind of sorted it out," he said. But for every Romberg there's someone who has just moved to a place like this, where timber and brush are practically right outside the doorstep.

"It is a challenge educating people who maybe have lived in the city," Hutchinson said. "They drive up here and go, 'Oh, it's gorgeous.' But they're not thinking like someone who lives up in this area who have seen fire. You have to educate them and [say], 'Be aware that, hey, these things happen.' "

Hot Summer Conditions, In May

There's proof of that just a short drive down the hill. Just a couple miles away from Romberg's house, the land looks like a moonscape.

"You'll see this whole area has been burned. It was just under 3,000 acres. It started on May 1," Hutchinson says.

The house that was closest to the fire front is uninhabitable. The brick base of the house is charred black and the roof — or what's left of it — has collapsed. This homeowner had done some clearances, Hutchinson says, but clearly, it wasn't enough.

"So you can see just how much fire came at that house. It wasn't just a 20-foot strip of fire. That was several hundred feet of fire," she says. "Very tall flame lengths because that was a lot of tall grass.

"But look at how many homes were right adjacent to this and down off the other bluff there that didn't get damaged at all," Hutchinson adds. Those houses are still standing, surrounded by green lawns and brown lots — clear defensible space.

The rest is nuked.

And this type of damage, this early in the year, is strange, Hutchinson says. "We don't normally see that until we hit those really hot, dry summer months and into fall ... when we'll see that type of destruction. And we're seeing it in May. And this was May 1. So, very significant."

Conditions could always change, she says. But with forests dry and ready to burn like it's October, and fire engines that already smell like smoke, firefighters are going to keep preparing as if these conditions are here to stay.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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