Friday, October 24, 2008

more heat

San Bernardino city firefighters at work Friday.

By Guy McCarthy

SAN BERNARDINO - The National Weather Service has extended red flag warnings for critical fire weather conditions through Sunday evening in the mountains and valleys of Southern California.

San Bernardino Firefighter Nick Munoz on the 210 Freeway.

It's already been a trying week for firefighters in several communities. Roadside vehicle fires were a problem on a number of freeways Friday. The one pictured happened about 2:35 p.m. on the eastbound 210 Freeway just west of Muscupiabe Drive.

Temperatures on slopes that burned Thursday above Upland rose to 94 with 6 percent relative humidity on Friday, according to U.S. Forest Service and CalFire personnel below Cucamonga Peak.

Later Friday a brush fire in Beaumont burned more than 35 acres, according to CalFire-Riverside County spokeswoman Cheri Patterson. The fire was contained at 5 p.m. Crews were expected to remain on fire lines through the night.

The cause of the fire was determined to be equipment use during a vehicle salvage, according to Patterson. Fire investigators would like to speak with someone who was driving a late model blue Chevy or GMC pickup truck in the area. Patterson encouraged anyone with information to call 1-800-633-2836.

CalFire-San Bernardino County Firefighter Phillip Marquez from Devore Engine 3577 packs out 50 pounds of hose Friday. Firefighters and inmates carried 3,000 to 5,000 linear feet of hose off slopes that burned Thursday above Upland.

Photos by Guy McCarthy.


inland heat

Vehicle explodes about 2:35 p.m. today on the 210 Freeway
in San Bernardino. No one was injured.

By Guy McCarthy

SAN BERNARDINO - From Upland to Beaumont, it's difficult to say who was warmest this afternoon in the Inland Empire.

Firefighters and inmate crews in the burned areas above Upland dealt with 94-degree heat, 6 percent relative humidity, and black widow spiders while they packed out 3,000 to 5,000 linear feet of hose from blackened slopes below Ontario and Cucamonga peaks.

Several hours later, more crews rushed to a brush fire that broke out about 3:20 p.m. at Lambs Canyon Road and Beaumont Avenue, according to CalFire-Riverside County spokeswoman Massiel De Guevara. No structures were immediately threatened.

A number of roadside vehicle fires were reported on freeways across Southern California today, and the 210 in San Bernardino was no exception.

Unfortunate but still lucky to be alive, Manuel Gurrola, 77, of San Bernardino said he drove over a mattress that got caught under his vehicle and he could not pull over right away.

By the time he stopped on the eastbound shoulder of the 210 at about 2:35 p.m., just west of Muscupiabe Drive, sparks from the bed springs and heat from the undercarriage set the vehicle aflame.

"He got out but he didn't want to move away from the flames at first," said Christina Perez, 20, who pulled over with her father Joaquin to help if they could. "My father got him to back off some, and that's when it exploded. We're glad he's okay."

San Bernardino Medic Engine 223 arrived within minutes, and Firefighter Nick Munoz doused the vehicle and roadside brush ignited by the flames.

The latest report from Beaumont was the brush fire had burned 50 to 100 acres, with no containment estimate shortly before 5 p.m., De Guevara said in a phone interview.

Burned slopes today below Cucamonga Peak.

Slideshows are here and here. Photos by Guy McCarthy.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

cucamonga canyon

Looking west over Cucamonga Canyon, July 2005.

By Guy McCarthy

UPLAND - About 400 firefighters were assigned to a 200-acre blaze burning this afternoon on slopes scorched five years ago in the Grand Prix Fire, according to Cal Fire and San Bernardino County fire officials.

The fire was reported at 2:04 p.m. near the north end of Euclid Avenue in Upland, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Suzanne Penfold. Firefighters stopped the flames from reaching any homes and the fire moved north into the wash at the mouth of Cucamonga Canyon, Penfold said.

No structures were immediately threatened and no evacuations had been ordered.

As of 5:30 p.m., officials estimated the fire was 30 percent contained and burning in the San Bernardino National Forest, said Cal Fire spokesman Jesse Estrada. One firefighter had been hospitalized due to an unspecified allergic reaction, Estrada said.

The Grand Prix Fire burned more than 69,000 acres and destroyed 194 homes in October 2003, according to U.S. Forest Service fire and aviation records.

The vegetation that has grown back in the past five years is not nearly as dense as unburned chaparral typically found at elevations near the mouth of Cucamonga Canyon.

San Bernardino County Fire spokeswoman Megan Blaney described the fuels burning today near San Antonio Heights as "light and flashy."


shades of red

Skycrane west of Porter Ranch last week.

By Guy McCarthy

SAN BERNARDINO - The National Weather Service has extended red flag warnings through Saturday night across much of Southern California due to expected low humidity and critical fire weather conditions.

Santa Ana winds have slacked off considerably, but the continued spell of dry heat should remain a concern to fire crews and residents, according to Weather Service updates this afternoon.

Areas noted by the Weather Service include the San Gabriel Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains, the Santa Clarita Valley, and the Angeles, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests.

Red flag warnings from the Weather Service today mean "that critical fire weather conditions are occurring. A combination of low relative humidity . . . very warm temperatures . . . and critical fuels will create explosive fire growth potential."

The Weather Service warnings are not to be confused with a new system of colored flag warnings devised in the foothill city of Sierra Madre, where officials are also concerned about the potential for devastating post-fire debris flows.

In Sierra Madre, a red flag means go - leave immediately - according to a new warning system announced this week. The Sierra Madre system also includes green and yellow flags.

Red flags won't come out until heavy rains are expected on burned watersheds from the Santa Anita Fire in April and May 2008, said city spokeswoman Elisa Weaver.

But Sierra Madre officials aren't taking any chances with the post-fire situation, Weaver said.

"Our biggest challenge at this point is making sure people understand," Weaver said in a phone interview. "The fires were burning right in people's back yards. We're based right up against these hills."

In Southern California, a steady rain on recently burned slopes can unleash tons of ash and destabilized soil. Depending on rain intensity, the size of the watershed and grade of the slopes, a post-fire debris flow can ooze along at 5 mph or reach freeway speeds - and in either case they can be deadly.

Post-fire debris flows killed 16 people in canyons north of San Bernardino on Christmas 2003.

Some Sierra Madre officials remember a post-fire debris flow that killed two in Bailey Canyon, several months after the devastating Kinneloa Fire of October 1993.

"We don't want to scare people," Weaver said. "We just want them to be aware of the possibilities and to be ready to evacuate when necessary."

A public meeting is scheduled to address the new warning system in early November.

More information is available at the city of Sierra Madre's site.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

'near miss'

Between Hunter's Ridge and Sheridan Estates.

By Guy McCarthy

FONTANA - Somebody set off fireworks in gusting Santa Ana winds early Wednesday, igniting a 250-acre wildfire that burned from north Fontana into Rancho Cucamonga, forced some foothill homeowners to evacuate, and closed two schools, fire officials said.

Blasting winds also played a role in a second fire that broke out before noon and burned about two acres in a south Fontana industrial area off Mulberry Avenue.

A red flag warning for gusting winds and heightened fire danger remains in effect for the mountains and valleys of southwest California through Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

The point of origin for the first fire was near the high end of Foxborough Drive, above the San Sevaine flood control channel and north of Interstate 15. It was initially reported at 12:43 a.m., said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Chon Bribiescas.

"We woke up at 2:30 and it seemed like it was in our back yard," said Rancho Cucamonga resident Charlotte Martinson, raising her voice to make herself heard above the winds. "It was pitch black and we could see the flames. It was 2003 all over again."

Martinson referred to the Grand Prix Fire of October 2003, which burned more than 69,000 acres and destroyed 194 homes, according to U.S. Forest Service fire and aviation records.

"The firefighters did an unbelievable job to knock it down," Martinson said, struggling to remain upright in the gusting winds. "They really deserve credit."

The Grand Prix Fire was ignited by an ATV rider in the same area, five years ago Tuesday, said San Bernardino County Fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez.

Inmate crew prepares for windy work in burned areas.

"It's a near miss, because the residents here have been lulled into thinking the brush that's grown back since the Grand Prix is not enough to fuel a wildfire," shouted Dennis Cisneros, of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Safe Council.

"What they saw early today is how fast and hot a fire can spread," Cisneros said, holding onto his Fire Safe Council hat as another gust set him back on his heels. "It was low to the ground, but it spread to 100 acres right away."

Etiwanda Colony Elementary and Summit Intermediate were the two schools closed as a precaution, Cisneros said.

"The San Bernardino County board of supervisors needs to make sure their fire codes include brush clearance requirements in utility corridors," Cisneros said. "See where these high tension power lines run on the front of these hillsides?

"This is what they call the wildland urban interface," Cisneros said. "This is exactly the path of the Grand Prix Fire. The vegetation is growing back and clearly these areas can be ignited year-round - not just in these seasonal Santana winds."

San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Dan Trapp said he and his engine crew arrived about 1 a.m. and tried to keep the fire from burning into a steep draw. The winds were too strong.

"We couldn't keep it from crossing the ravine, but we were lucky it didn't climb further up the mountain and come back down on us," Trapp said.

"The lesson is you have to always be prepared in Southern California," Trapp said. "Brush clearance and evacuation plans. Even though this area has a history, people get complacent."

No one had been taken into custody or charged in the Foxborough Fire, Martinez said. Both fires remained under investigation.

Burned slopes Wednesday above Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

red flag

Skycrane passes over a burned structure next to
the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway, Oct. 13 2008.

By Guy McCarthy

SAN BERNARDINO - The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions and explosive fire growth potential tonight through Friday in the mountains and valleys of southwest California.

Officials with the San Bernardino National Forest have characterized the forecast Santa Ana wind event as "weak to moderate."

Nonetheless, authorities have beefed up fire response readiness with additional firefighters, aircraft, and extended patrols, according to forest spokesman John Miller.

There are a total of 30 engines assigned to the San Bernardino National Forest this week, as well as four hotshot crews, three tanker planes, three Skycrane helitankers, two other helicopters, and an air attack lead plane ready to respond to fires as they are reported, according to Miller.

"We take the forecasted weather very seriously and add additional resources as needed," Forest Fire and Aviation Chief Michael Dietrich said in a prepared statement. "Even with more patrols we need the public to join in fire prevention, both being careful and reporting suspicious activities immediately."

Last week's winds stoked fires in the San Fernando Valley and in the city of San Bernardino. The Sesnon and Marek fires burned more than 19,000 acres, destroyed more than 50 homes and contributed to two deaths. Fires in San Bernardino gutted several businesses, forced closures of Interstate 215, and threatened neighborhoods at the base of Little Mountain.

Near Porter Ranch, Oct. 13 2008.

Timed to coincide with the heightened state of awareness, the San Bernardino County Mountain Area Safety Taskforce has scheduled a press conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday in upper Waterman Canyon at Highway 18. Officials intend to address fire preparedness, fire history, new building codes, evacuation procedures, fire resource availability and arson awareness.

Those expected to speak include San Bernardino County Fire Chief Pat Dennen, sheriff's Lt. Rick Ells, and Forest Supervisor Jeanne Wade Evans, said sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller.

The press conference will be staged at the site of a commercial structure that was destroyed during the 2003 Old Fire. Sheriff's officials noted this week marks the anniversaries of the Old and Grand Prix fires in 2003, and of the Slide and Grass Valley fires in 2007.

The fires are among the most devastating in county history, leaving more than 1,400 homes in ashes.

Sunday is the anniversary of the 2006 Esperanza Fire, when five U.S. Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect a vacant home near Twin Pines, in the San Jacinto Mountains section of the San Bernardino National Forest.

Early Oct. 23 2007 in Running Springs.
Photos by Guy McCarthy.


Monday, October 13, 2008

winds dictate

Dusk falls near Mayan Drive

By Guy McCarthy

PORTER RANCH - From San Bernardino to the San Fernando Valley, gusting winds held the upper hand Monday, severely limiting what firefighters and pilots could do as out-of-control fires burned an estimated 10,000 acres, destroyed more than a dozen homes, and contributed to at least one death.

"It was hell, hell in the mountains," said Abdessamad Elyamani, a doctor who feared for the lives of his wife and children as Santa Ana winds hurled a storm of flames and embers into their hillside community.

"I saw it coming so fast," said Elyamani, who lives near the high end of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. "Two or three minutes, that is all. It was huge fumes of smoke and flames, and we could not breathe. It was jumping all over. Embers were flying and starting fires everywhere."

Los Angeles County fire Capt. Tim Bauer and a strike team of five engine crews from East Los Angeles arrived about 11 a.m. and did what they could.

"Winds were reported 75 mph here. It was a firestorm," Bauer said. "Embers were flying sideways into the houses. As soon as we got here, the fire was right upon us."

Bauer and his crews took a chance trying to defend a ridgetop neighborhood with narrow, winding roads and limited water. Several homes burned, but they managed to save more than the flames destroyed.

"We took risks taking the high ground, yes," Bauer said. "But it's risk versus gain. We were sheltered somewhat behind the houses. . . . No, it's not a safe place for a firefight. Narrow streets, hilltop, and only a few hydrants."

Elyamani's home did not burn, but several of his neighbors' homes further uphill on Mayan Drive were gutted.

"We will try to spend the night," Elyamani said, walking down from Mayan as a smoky, orange dusk turned slowly to darkness. "But you see these embers on the hill? If they cross the street we are gone."

He pointed at the slope across the road from his home as wind fanned tiny, glowing hot spots into flames. He turned towards his home with his wife and boys, ages 4 and 8.

"We hope we are going to be okay."

Earlier Monday, about 80 miles east at the Forest Service Tanker Base in San Bernardino, aviation officer Tom Inocencio said blasting winds and turbulence in the morning prevented he and his pilot from making it to the fires burning in the San Fernando Valley.

"They sent us to the fire at Little Tujunga, the one they call Marek," Inocencio said. "We made it to west of Cucamonga Peak, above Rancho and Ontario, but we had updrafts and downdrafts coming off the mountains.

"We were losing and gaining 2,000 feet elevation per minute," Inocencio said. "It was like being weightless for a second, then getting jammed down in your seat. Wilder than a rollercoaster."

Inocencio and private contract pilot Ryan Litten were in a twin-engine Aero Commander, a lead plane for tankers that drop retardant and water. The blasting winds kept many aircraft grounded at the same time the fires blew up, according to accounts at the tanker base and in the Porter Ranch area.

"It's a decision we have to make sometimes," Litten said. "Every aircraft has limitations and if conditions exceed those limitations we have to set it down. It wasn't fun this morning. Everything in the cabin was flying around."

Inocencio said he learned the winds had grounded all fixed-wing tankers flying out of Lancaster. Watching television coverage of the fires in the San Bernardino tanker base kitchen, Inocencio drew a few conclusions.

"These aren't the kinds of fires where aircraft are effective," Inocencio said. "The winds just take the water or retardant and spread it out. Drops just drift away, off target. When it blows this hard, the real work gets done on the ground."

It was about 1:30 p.m. By that time, Inocencio said he'd had to turn down two additional dispatches because of the winds.

"We're getting 30 knot cross-winds here right across the deck," Inocencio said. "We had sustained readings at Santiago Peak in Orange County of 70 mph. Top speed gust reading was 117 mph at Santiago."

Some helicopter pilots in Los Angeles County managed to fly, and by late afternoon tanker planes made at least a few drops on the fires in the San Fernando Valley. Earlier in the day, Inocencio said some of the aerial attacks were just for show.

"It looks good because people want to see their tax dollars at work," Inocencio said. "But it's risk versus gain. Is it worth the risk to put on a show like that, when it doesn't do much on the fire?

"It's been a rough day so far. Maybe tomorrow will be better. But the latest models show the winds will keep going into Wednesday."


Photos by Guy McCarthy

Thursday, October 9, 2008

extra crews

Skycrane detail, November 2007.
Photo by Guy McCarthy.

Thursday, Oct. 9 2008 - More fire crews are shifting to Southern California today as Santa Ana winds are expected to return this weekend. Additional aircraft are already on standby.

The Forest Service issued this press release today:


VALLEJO, Calif. – In preparation for forecasted Santa Ana winds this weekend the Forest Service is bolstering its fire response readiness with additional firefighters, aircraft, and extended patrols.

This Sunday and Monday, weather forecasts are calling for the first Santa Ana wind event of the year. In response, local forests are staffing firefighters for 24 hour shifts and 20 additional engines, 12 heavy air tankers, and six Sky Crane helitankers have been moved into the area to assist with initial attack. Additionally, the Forest Service has requested the Air National Guard provide two Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) equipped C-130 aircraft to assist with potential firefighting needs.

“We have already had a long and difficult fire season in Northern California this year,” said Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore, “but as the fire season transitions into Southern California we will remain alert and proactively shift firefighters ahead of Santa Ana winds to improve our ability to stop wildfires before they can grow out of control.”

Locally, on the San Bernardino National Forest, an additional five engines will supplement the usual 25 local Forest Service engines, totaling 30 engines on extended staffing, as well as four hotshot crews, three airtankers, two helitankers, two helicopters, an air attack plane, and addition initial attack support. An additional four single engine airtankers can be available within four hours.

“San Bernardino National Forest firefighters continue doing a tremendous job taking immediate and aggressive action suppressing wildland fires on the forest,” said Forest Supervisor Jeanne Wade Evans. “Now as we potentially face our first Santa Ana winds of the season, we’re ramping up our fire fighting resources and law enforcement patrols.”

Each fall in Southern California, Santa Ana winds have the potential to rapidly spread wildfires which makes rapid response to fires extremely important. Although the Forest Service and partnering firefighting agencies in Southern California are doing their part to prepare for potential wildfires this fall, it is equally important for local citizens to do their part.

Citizens can help firefighters by ensuring that their homes have defensible space and by being especially careful with open flames, sparks, and other heat sources.

Additionally, citizens living near the wildland-urban interface should keep an eye out for arson and report arson activity immediately by dialing 911.


On standby, November 2007. Photo by Guy McCarthy.

Meanwhile, a study released today shows wildfires cause ozone pollution levels that can exceed health standards.

The study, conducted by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, focused on California wildfires in October and September 2007.

NCAR scientists Gabriele Pfister and Christine Wiedinmyer found the fires repeatedly caused ground-level ozone to spike to unhealthy levels across a broad area, including much of rural California as well as neighboring Nevada.

The study is copyrighted by the American Geophysical Union.