Community Editorial: Lessons of the Freeway Complex Fire

Freeway Complex Fire
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On a hot, dry, windy November morning in 2008 I headed to the Yorba Linda Farmer’s Market. As I was leaving the market, a plume of smoke in the distance near Corona caught my eye. As a longtime Carbon Canyon resident I was already in a heightened alert mode; fires were raging across our region because of the Santa Ana winds.

When I had turned on the news earlier in the day, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing when a TV news helicopter panned across a grid of burned rubble. I blinked several times to comprehend the scene. Wait, what is that? An entire mobile home park in Sylmar was destroyed? How could that be? Because of radiant heat, houses burned other houses down.

Though alarmed by the Corona plume, I nevertheless continued on to babysit my grandson. As I watched the news from my daughter’s home I saw that another fire had just started in Brea. Immediately I called her to come back so I could go home before the Canyon Road closed. All day long my neighbors gathered and guessed and eventually evacuated when we notified Brea Fire that the flames had crested from Yorba Linda. All day long, we had not seen one single fire truck in our neighborhood. This fire was different. Fire scientists now tell us more fires will be like this one.

With the aid of capricious winds and strained firefighting resources, over the next 24 hours the two fires merged into the Freeway Complex Fire. It burned over 30,000 acres in four counties. Despite valiant efforts by firefighters and neighbors alike, this fire ultimately destroyed or damaged nearly 300 homes. It also charred 95% of Chino Hills State Park, further exacerbating the loss of native woodlands.

This weekend marks the fifth anniversary of that fire.

Hills For Everyone, founders of Chino Hills State Park, will be holding a Commemoration of the Freeway Complex Fire. We need to honor the losses and the lessons.

The exhibit will be held at the Chino Hills State Park Discovery Center at 4500 Carbon Canyon Road in Brea on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17, and Nov. 23-24 from 9 a.m. to noon. It will include maps, photos, articles and video from residents around the hills as well as an accounting of the progress toward fire safety that has been made. Parking is free to exhibit visitors.

The Freeway Complex Fire was a wake-up call to many residents. Two major transportation corridors into and out of Orange County — the 57 and 91 freeways — were closed when the fire jumped them. Drivers traveling 50 mph reported not being able to get ahead of the flames or were slowed because of the thick, choking smoke.

Residents in Yorba Linda faced gridlock as they self-evacuated onto streets not designed for a mass, simultaneous evacuation. Gridlock also kept firefighters from getting into neighborhoods. For a while, residents in Brea were confronted with no on-ground firefighting resources. Only Los Angeles County water dropping helicopters could be seen as the fire spread. It eventually destroyed Brea Canyon High School, a concrete fortress.

The Orange County Fire Authority’s After Action Report admitted that many things went wrong that day.

In Yorba Linda, a booster pump station shut down due to the heat, thereby depriving fire fighters of water. A planned water reservoir was not yet built, though houses were occupied. A secondary evacuation route for Hidden Hills was blocked because no one had a key or bolt cutters to open the gate. This, however, likely averted catastrophe. If anyone had used the steep dirt road they may well have been overrun by flames that were at times advancing at a rate of 14 football fields a minute. Luckily no one died.

When the smoke cleared, it turned out that most of the homes that burned were, like Sylmar, not ignited by the flame front from the neighboring wildlands but rather by embers and radiant heat that jumped from house to house, sometimes hours after the flame front had passed. Houses deep in the suburban area, far away from the wildland urban edge, were lost. Homes with extensive fuel modification zones even burned in this wind-driven conflagration.

We mark this anniversary not only because of the trauma and the proactive response it brought to our communities but also because three more housing projects are being considered in the fire-prone hills of North Orange County.

Fire scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey or USGS have demonstrated that the best predictor of where the next fire will occur is where it has burned before. Data from fire agencies show that all three proposed development sites have burned multiple times in the past 30 years.

In early 2014, Brea City Council will be deciding the fate of the 162-unit Madrona project (formerly Canyon Crest) on ridge-top land deep in Carbon Canyon. Since the Brea Planning Commission approved the project five months before the Freeway Fire, the council is hearing an appeal. The plan is to level the ridge so that houses will surround the two white water tanks visible throughout much of the county. Nearly 1,400 oak and walnut trees would be doomed. The land lies adjacent to Chino Hills State Park and Firestone Scout Reservation.

The county of Orange is also processing two projects in a county island north of Yorba Linda: the 112 houses of Cielo Vista and 340 houses of Esperanza Hills. Comments on the draft environmental impact report for Cielo Vista are due two days before Christmas. The environmental impact report for Esperanza Hills is supposed to be released this week, and comments will likely be due during Christmas break.

Fire agencies are supposedly satisfied with the fire protection plans for these projects. Residents and survivors are not convinced. As USGS fire scientist C.J. Fotheringham suggests, there are two kinds of fires: the ones you plan for and the ones that do all of the damage.

Common sense and repeated catastrophic fires should have taught us that adding more houses on the wildland edge in known fire and wind corridors with compromised road access puts the public and firefighters at risk. Let’s hope decision makers don’t need another teachable moment. We may not be so lucky next time.

Claire Schlotterbeck is a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member and also serves as the executive director of Hills for Everyone.

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