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Crews Labor to Fully Rein in Damaging California Wildfires

October 25, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Day five of the fires disaster in California, we begin our coverage with NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET Los Angeles, with this report from San Diego.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: The winds calmed in Southern California today, allowing firefighters to make major progress. In San Diego County, the flames moved eastward away from urban areas, and many of the estimated half a million evacuated residents were let back into their neighborhoods.

RON LANE, San Diego County Emergency Services Director: Our major focus now is repopulating the western part of our county.

JEFFREY KAYE: Shelters are emptying, but about 1,000 evacuees remained at Qualcomm Stadium, down from a high of several thousand.

CHIEF KEVIN CRAWFORD, Carlsbad Fire Department: We still have fire conditions out there that cannot be taken lightly, and so our efforts are still being put forth to control raging, out-of-control, large-scale fires.

JEFFREY KAYE: Those large-scale fires have moved to more rural areas of the county, this one in Jamul, near the Mexican border. None of the fires are more than 40 percent to 50 percent contained.

FIREFIGHTER: Our biggest concern, safety concern is the winds shifting patterns, but it’s getting better.

JEFFREY KAYE: By this afternoon, at least 15 fires continued to burn across more than 750 square miles, from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border. There was also word of more deaths connected to the fires. At least 10 have died and more than 65 have been injured, about 40 of them firefighters.

President Bush arrived in smoky Southern California this morning to view the damage. He toured Rancho Bernardo, a fire-ravaged suburb north of San Diego with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The community is home to about 75,000 people; more than 250 homes were destroyed here.

Along the way, Mr. Bush stopped to comfort Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat, whose home was destroyed. Mr. Bush also met with firefighters and toured a one-stop assistance center. He later spoke to reporters.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It really is important for me to come out here and see firsthand the situation. And there’s no question a lot of people are suffering, and there’s no question there’s been terrible losses.

I also am out here to make sure these firefighters behind me and the first responders know how much I appreciate and how much the country appreciates their courage and bravery. We’re not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.

That we want the people to know that there’s a better day ahead, that today your life may look dismal, but, tomorrow, life’s going to be better. And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so.

JEFFREY KAYE: The president has declared seven Southern California counties major disaster areas opening the way for increased federal aid.

POLICE OFFICER: When we get to a barricade, I’ll go in front of you and get you through the barricade, OK?

JEFFREY KAYE: In Rancho Bernardo, residents began returning yesterday evening, but under strict guidelines. Police Sergeant Bill Davis briefed a team of officers assigned to escort residents to their homes for short visits.

POLICE OFFICER: Stay with the people. They’ve got 10 minutes. Take them out to the nearest public exit, you know, a place where the public is allowed, come back, and pick up the next one.

JEFFREY KAYE: Some people got back to undamaged residences to retrieve possessions and pets. For others, coming home was more dramatic.

GORDON WOOD, Fire Victim: We left without shoes on our feet. There was embers falling on our heads when we tried to get into the car.

Media coverage of fire damage

JEFFREY KAYE: Gordon Wood returned with his wife, Marilyn, to find their house destroyed.

Some residents found their homes turned into impromptu television studios with the arrival of the national and international media. Some in San Diego have criticized news reporters for exaggerating the scope of the disaster.

This morning, the line of people in cars waiting to get back into Rancho Bernardo stretched about a mile.

COUNSELOR VOLUNTEER: If there's anything I can do at all...

JEFFREY KAYE: Outside the assistance center, counselor volunteer Kishie Bushnell offered compassion and consolation to evacuees.

COUNSELOR VOLUNTEER: And your home, do you know anything about it?

FIRE VICTIM: I'm pretty sure it's gone.

COUNSELOR VOLUNTEER: Oh, I'm so sorry.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jenifer and John Groeling already knew their home and belongings had been destroyed.

What do you hope to get here?

JENIFER GROELING, Fire Victim: Well, there's a car that survived. One of our cars is there. That's pretty much -- I think that's probably going to be hit. I think we've got maybe a wall.

JEFFREY KAYE: Inside the aid center, community representatives sat at tables ready to help residents with loans and emergency assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, can provide up to nearly $30,000 per victim for expenses not covered by insurance.

The insurance companies were also on hand here, setting up shop to arrange for compensation and claims.

Although this neighborhood remains under an evacuation order, one sign of the diminished threat was that firefighters assigned to protect it were coming come off a 24-hour shift and taking a break, before being reassigned back to their stations.

Some communities are rapidly coming back to normal. Poway was one of the very first cities to evacuate, but this morning, you wouldn't know this place had been in any danger. Stores are open, traffic is flowing, and mail carriers are catching up on their deliveries. City officials are helping out those whose homes have been damaged.

Poway's recreation center is still serving as a shelter and is a place for people to come for essentials. Red Cross officials running the shelter say it's being used mostly by Latino immigrant families.

To the north, some fires still rage on. In San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, firefighters struggle to contain two fires that have destroyed more than 300 homes around Lake Arrowhead; 6,000 more structures remain in its path. In Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, some residents described how they took matters into their own hands.

JOHN JOSEPH, Southern California Resident: I have my own pump that I'd pull out of the stream, 130 gallons a minute, and I was up on the roof wetting everything down. When you think you're about to lose everything that you have, you freak. You don't eat; you fast; and you pray.

JEFFREY KAYE: Now that the fires have largely moved out of urban areas, authorities are issuing new warnings about respiratory health.

DR. JAMES DUNFORD, Medical Director, City of San Diego: We're going to be seeing a rise in this over the next couple of weeks in our emergency departments.

JEFFREY KAYE: These problems took as long as a year to surface after the fires four years ago in San Diego. In general, many here are saying that the firefighting response to this week's fires were much better than in 2003.

Questions on public policy

Bodie Shaw
National Interagency Fire Center
The complexities of the wildland-urban interface and all that it contributes to really does play quite a big role ... We have to even open the door a little bit on discussing climate change and the effects and impacts that it has.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner picks up the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: In the wake of the fires, there are growing questions about whether public policy decisions, ranging from land development to public spending, may be making the fire danger worse.

We get two perspectives. Bodie Shaw is with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the government's mobilizing center for coordinating firefighting efforts across the country in times of emergency. And Glen Sparrow is a professor emeritus at San Diego State University's School of Public Administration and Urban Studies. He's been a staff member on the San Diego City Council and worked at the California State Assembly.

Mr. Sparrow, has a consensus emerged as to why the fires in Southern California, particularly in San Diego County, were so virulent this time?

GLEN SPARROW, San Diego State University: It's a question of too much brush and dry tinder, forest, the lack of rain, and the Santa Ana winds that just whipped through here, whipped that up, and moves it in a westward direction.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the role of development? We're hearing a lot of criticism about how close development is now to the wilderness areas that burn every year.

GLEN SPARROW: That's, of course, a problem, is that people are building in the wrong places. They're building way too close to the brush and the forests out there, because they want to get in a lovely place so they can live and feel good about it.

But the places are not properly built; they're not properly fireproofed; they're oft times surrounded by brush; they aren't properly cleared. And when these fires come through, they just rip right through there.

Up through canyons, people living on top of hills and on canyon edges that they want to see the view and have that pristine environment, it just doesn't work in the fire season.

MARGARET WARNER: Bodie Shaw in Boise, what do you think has contributed to making these fires this year so voracious and so hard to fight?

BODIE SHAW, National Interagency Fire Center: Well, I really think we're looking at a combination of factors that really contribute to the complexities of these fires. I think the complexities of the wildland-urban interface and all that it contributes to really does play quite a big role and factor into what we're seeing now. We have to even open the door a little bit on discussing climate change and the effects and impacts that it has.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you talk about the wildland-urban interface, then you're talking about what Professor Sparrow was talking about earlier, that development now just continues marching in right up next to these wilderness areas? If that's what you mean, how does that complicate your job?

BODIE SHAW: Looking at the challenges that were faced by firefighters, wildland firefighters back in the '60s and '70s, we just didn't have the encroachment that we now see within that urban interface. And, really, what that presents, one, is a safety factor by all means, by putting our firefighters in harm's way, something we try to avoid at all costs.

But another, really, you're talking the structural complexities. You've now changed from those forest or vegetative chaparral types to now having to deal with structures and the hazards that those pose, when our wildland firefighters have not been trained in how to deal with those.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Professor Sparrow back in. Professor Sparrow, after the 2003 fires in San Diego, they had this same conversation. Why does building continue in that way?

GLEN SPARROW: It continues because we've run out of space to put people. We're built out, essentially, in San Diego, so they're moving out into the wildlands with usually very expensive homes, I might add. And we have 18 cities and a county here that essentially all have different standards.

And there's money to be made. There are people who want those houses out in that environment. And the encroachment puts them right up against the chaparral and the eucalyptus, and it's like being next to a gasoline tank.

Taxation to fight fire damage

Glen Sparrow
San Diego State University
We met some technical changes [after 2003 fires], the reverse 911. Communications is better. They've made some organizational changes...But we still are out of equipment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a professor at UCSD, Steve Erie, has been widely quoted as saying, you know, after the 2003 fire, San Diego made certain changes but really nothing that cost any money and pointed out that San Diego taxpayers turned down tax increases to help beef up its firefighting capability. Do you think that's a valid criticism?

GLEN SPARROW: This region is tax averse. Yes, I'd agree with Steve all the way. We did some things here, but we didn't buy equipment and we didn't get resources.

We met some technical changes, the reverse 911. Communications is better. They've made some organizational changes. I think this is being handled much better by the local governments, along with state, the national government.

But we still are out of equipment. We had a fire chief in the city of San Diego who quit because they wouldn't buy him the equipment he needed, that he felt he needed after the 2003 Cedar Fire.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about getting firefighting help from outside the county? How well has that worked?

GLEN SPARROW: That happens. In the west out here, we move firefighters to where the fire is from throughout the western states, and that's happened here. There are firefighters from throughout California, but also out of Oregon and Montana and Arizona and so forth. That happens; they come to these massive fires.

But eventually that's going to have to be paid for. After this is all cleaned up and everything's done, there's going to be bills that are going to have to be paid for.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bodie Shaw, back to you, do you think firefighters -- do you agree with Professor Sparrow that the firefighters haven't had everything they've need?

BODIE SHAW: From what I'm hearing -- and this is coming from the National Interagency Fire Center -- some of the confusion, or if we were to state that some of the resources weren't available, it would have to be aviation assets. But as everyone's already heard, due to the high winds, they were not able to fly for retardant or water drops.

But in terms of assets currently on the ground, in listening to the governor and then the president earlier today, we're hearing about the high numbers of resources. That's both personnel, aviation, and a lot of our fire engines, as you alluded to, that have come throughout the west that are currently arriving on scene.

Zoning restrictions to avoid fires

National Interagency Fire Center
Bodie Shaw
Zoning needs to be taken a hard look at, in terms of unfettered expansion into the wildland-urban interface, not only in California, but it's across the west.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you recommend that communities like San Diego, Bodie Shaw, do something through zoning? California Senator Dianne Feinstein suggested this yesterday on the Senate floor, saying really there just have to be some restrictions placed on zoning.

BODIE SHAW: And I think a lot of us, current and former firefighters, are glad to hear that this has been raised to that national level of discussion. We really think it has to occur. Zoning needs to be taken a hard look at, in terms of unfettered expansion into the wildland-urban interface, not only in California, but it's across the west.

It's becoming and posing tremendous challenges to our firefighters, once again, putting them in harm's way, something we absolutely try not to do under any circumstances, but it's becoming more and more prevalent as we continue to hear about, as the fire seasons continue to escalate.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Shaw, I did read of some communities in San Diego that have imposed something or adopted something called shelter-in-place that homeowners do around their homes and that those communities were spared. Is that a potential model? Can you briefly describe it? And is that a potential model?

BODIE SHAW: Sure. In describing the shelter-in-place model, this is a concept -- a number of us went to Australia last year for their bushfire season, and it was a concept that they have in doctrine into their public setting.

And, really, what it boils down to, and it must be what you're referencing with the San Diego communities, the communities and the homeowners themselves have taken it upon themselves, not only are they cognizant of the natural settings in which they live in or choose to live in, but they've decided to do something about it.

And what they've decided to do is much more in lines of what we call our fire-wise concepts: clearing vegetation, hazardous and flammable vegetation from around your homes; removing debris, woodpiles; giving the firefighters a chance, if and when a wildland fire comes through the community.

And taking it from the San Diego communities, those that have decided to shelter-in-place, it really is a concept that needs to be discussed a bit further. And I'm glad to hear some examples of communities who have taken it upon themselves to be proactive in protecting their communities and actually helping firefighters when wildland fire does come knocking at the door.

MARGARET WARNER: Bodie Shaw of the National Interagency Fire Center and Glen Sparrow of San Diego State University, thank you both very much.

JIM LEHRER: San Diego Public Television's KPBS has been tracking the fires with an interactive map and real-time updates. You'll find a link to their coverage on our Web site at PBS.org.