Tuesday, July 8, 2008
by Guy McCarthy
MILL CREEK CANYON (July 8 2008) - Last week as the Ridge Fire burned above Yucaipa, anxious residents on the other side of the mountain watched the rising smoke column with a sense of dread.
"I was really concerned at first that most of the aircraft were assigned to fires up north," Ben James, 29, said Tuesday. "But it seemed like there was an awful lot of aircraft on the fire almost immediately."
James lives in Mountain Home Village, a tiny enclave of about 170 year-round residents, situated just north of Yucaipa and next to the boulder-strewn wash in the bottom of Mill Creek Canyon.
Being so close to the water, the trees and vegetation here are lush and green, unlike the tinder-dry chaparral and thousands of dead trees cloaking the ridges above. Most of Mill Creek Canyon has not burned in a century or more, according to foresters and fire historians.
The Ridge Fire burned about 250 acres on Thursday July 3, erupting in near 100-degree temperatures that afternoon. Initial fears the fire would spill over the ridge into Mill Creek Canyon were doused as quickly as the flames. There was little or no fire activity in the burned areas Friday and Saturday.
Authorities said line-digging crews contained the fire by 6 p.m. Sunday. An investigation to determine the cause remained underway Tuesday afternoon, according to San Bernardino National Forest spokesman John Miller. Arson and fireworks had already been ruled out as possible causes, Miller said.
So while thousands of firefighters continued battling more than 300 different blazes from Santa Barbara to Big Sur and all the way to Oregon, the Ridge Fire appeared little more than a footnote to an already catastrophically costly fire season statewide.
The short story was "Good save. Mill Creek didn't burn."
But there's always a flip side when tons of dead fuel don't burn. The threat remains.
"The dead trees are a concern," James said Tuesday. He was minding his two children, ages 18 months and three years old, while they played in the front yard. "But I don't know what to do, other than burn it down."
Whenever a ridge is on fire in the nation's most populous mountain forest, the response is swift. On Thursday a group of Forest Service firefighters known as Front Country Crew Six, from Lytle Creek, were among the first assigned to face flames near several hillside homes above Yucaipa.
"We were on initial attack on the right flank," Engineer Jimmy Butler said Tuesday, standing with several crew members near the Ridge Fire's point of origin. "It was a typical slope-driven fire. The winds weren't really a factor. Winds were normal, light, up-canyon winds, like today."
In other words, little to no wind, with 5 mph breezes at times.
On Thursday, Butler's crew and scores of other firefighters worked on steep slopes with loose rocks in blistering temperatures. At least one firefighter was treated for heat-related symptoms that day. But the hard work paid off. No homes burned, and the fire all but died by the end of the day.
Asked about dead trees on the other side of the ridge, Butler and other crew members acknowledged the remaining fire hazard.
"The north-facing aspect has a lot of heavy fuels and dense vegetation," Butler said. "It's an ongoing concern."
"It was a really good catch in that sense," said Mike Duran, another member of Front Country Crew Six. "We had limited aircraft, so we look at it as a great job by the ground crews . . . and the engine crews. They did a great job putting hose lines into the steeps."
Crew Boss Robert Moreno said there is no doubt more needs to be done to cut down dead and dying trees.
"The best thing that can be done are the fuel breaks and brush removal, around towns like Angelus Oaks," Moreno said. "They have really good treatment there. I've seen fire go from untreated areas into treated, and it slows right down. Forest rangers are aware of the potential for catastrophic fires in these mountain communities."
Richard Minnich, who studies forestry and fire history in Southern California and Baja at UC-Riverside, is an outspoken critic of federal forest management. He contends that a century of strict fire suppression on public lands has helped create the current potential for ever-larger fires, an unnatural consequence in a region where plants are designed by nature to burn.
Minnich has warned for years about the dense stands of chaparral on Yucaipa Ridge and in Mill Creek Canyon. Given the light wind conditions on Thursday, Minnich believes forest managers missed a chance to burn off a great deal of hazardous fuel.
"They're only sticking their finger in the dyke when they put a fire out in those conditions," Minnich said Tuesday. "In Mill Creek they now have 120-year-old fuel on those north-facing slopes.
"It's okay to praise the firefighters," Minnich said. "But all they did was prevent it from burning, and it will want to burn again. Next time it could be a Santa Ana wind, and they won't have a chance of controlling that. . . . It was good weather to let that one roll as far as it could. They can let it burn all the way down to Mill Creek. That wash is a huge fuel break."
Aggressive fire suppression like that practised last week is part of the problem, Minnich said. It helped kill many of the dead trees that pose part of the continuing hazard.
"The cause of the fire is the vegetation, not the people who started it," Minnich said. "What are they trying to protect? The vegetation is the fuel, and it needs to burn. The reason so many trees died recently is a hundred years of fire suppression. Too many trees drinking too little water."
Minnich's views run contrary to U.S. Forest Service policy.
"This week would have been an inappropriate time to have 'fire use' like that, to let it burn," said forest spokesman Miller. "We don't have the resources right now. Further, any community in the forest is at risk. If we have a fire start anywhere in the forest it is an immediate threat to at least one of our communities. It is our policy that we will suppress all fires."
Miller spoke in part for Mike Dietrich, chief of fire and aviation management for the San Bernardino National Forest. Reached by phone Tuesday, Dietrich indicated he had his hands full. He was one of two incident commanders on the 80,000-acre Basin Complex Fire burning in and around Big Sur.
Miller said he is familiar with Minnich's work and he was not dismissive of Minnich's views. He pointed out that Front Country Ranger Gabe Garcia, of Lytle Creek, is in the process of conducting a detailed fireshed assessment for fuel treatment plans in Yucaipa, Oak Glen, Beaumont and Banning - areas that Minnich has warned about repeatedly.
"We have been studying the area for fuel treatment programs and that would include prescribed burns," Miller said. "I understand what Minnich is saying, but we just can't do it the way he is suggesting. Based on our history in the forest, we are not going to let a fire burn ever."
Situated above the Cajon Pass and San Gorgonio Pass, the San Bernardino National Forest is home to some of the most fire-prone communities in the United States. Recent disastrous fires here include the Old and Grand Prix of October 2003, which contributed to six deaths and burned more than 1,000 homes; the Esperanza Fire of October 2006, which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and burned 34 homes; and the Slide and Grass Valley fires of October 2007, which burned 450 homes.
For the past few weeks, it may have been a secret relief for some residents here to watch another part of the state grapple with continuing fires and evacuations.
But according to Minnich, until we do something about fuel loads in Southern California, we're going to keep repeating ourselves.
More photos at yucaipa ridge set
mill creek canyon slideshow
Video at youtube