Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Where Development Meets Open Land, Fire Risk Is High

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Where Development Meets Open Land, Fire Risk Is High

Article excerpt

THE spectacle of residents here returning to homes where nothing is left but a chimney is sending a five-alarm warning across the United States.

In a nation where cities are expanding into suburbs and suburbs into "exurbs," experts say Oakland typifies "the fire of the future," a place where housing developments meet wildlands and the results are too often combustible.

The risks are probably the most pronounced in California, but they extend way beyond this rapidly growing state.

The development of what were once wild areas on the outskirts of cities, the building of homes on the edge of national parks and pristine forests, dense development in urban hills and canyons lands - all pose new challenges to firefighters.

Experts say preventing such debacles as occurred here, where 2,700 dwellings were destroyed in the worst fire in US history, requires new firefighting techniques, changes in urban planning, and sacrifices by home owners.

"As the population grows, as we take over more wildland areas, there are no buffer zones between ground cover and homes," says James Covington, an instructor at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. "Whenever you have small brush fires, they can run right up to buildings."

No longer, say experts, can city fire departments be content knowing just how to put out structure fires, nor can state and federal agencies be schooled only in wildland techniques. Departments today need off-road vehicles as well as traditional "pumpers," and ground crews that can create fire breaks.

"I think this is the fire of the future," says Charlie Johnson of the Santa Barbara Fire Department, which last year fought the "painted cave" blaze that destroyed 600 structures.

The Oakland fire also highlights the need for new command structures to handle large-scale emergencies. At the peak, more than 1,400 firefighters and several hundred pieces of equipment - including planes and helicopters - were enlisted to battle the 1,800-acre blaze.

Traditionally, departments have used top-down command structures, with one person directing the operation. …

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