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We've Had Terrible Fires. Why Haven't More Homes Burned?

A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop near firefighters battling the Easy Fire on Oct. 30, 2019 near Simi Valley. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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As overwhelming as it is for the public and firefighters to cope with wildland fires popping up all over Southern California, and the loss of some homes, there is reason to feel better about our collective response to them.

It could have been worse.

So far this year, firefighters have been able to gain control of the SoCal fires fairly quickly. Part of that has to do with luck, like the winds being less forceful than predicted during the Getty Fire in the hills above Brentwood. But another part of that success, according to officials, is because of improvements in how fast and accurately they're able to detect and attack fires.

As the economy has improved, local governments like Los Angeles have been able to hire more people and buy more equipment. The tech in that equipment is better too, and it's helping fire managers devise firefighting strategies faster.

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A better economy means the city can have more people responding to emergencies, and better equipment to address them.

The Great Recession set in around 2008 and its effects were felt for years after. Los Angeles and other local governments rely heavily on sales taxes, and during the recession, people were not buying like before. As older, more experienced firefighters retired, the city was hard-pressed to replace them.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said that when he took office in 2013, the city's fire academy had not graduated a class of new firefighters in the past five years. But now, he's seen 18 academy classes finish training. That means more firefighters can be on the front lines.

The rising economy means the city can buy more equipment, too, Garcetti said. L.A. now has more small brush fire response trucks that can go off road, and more of the large fire engines that can roll out to defend homes from encroaching flames. The city also bought two new fire helicopters.


Fire agencies have long collected information about past fires' burn patterns, the density and water content of vegetation, topography and other data. Previously, it could have taken fire managers a day or more to analyze the disparate information to predict a fire's path.

But now, a new supercomputer system called Wifire is combining the data and coming up with a projection for where the fire will go.

LAFD Captain Ralph Terrazas shows off new firefighting technology known as FIRIS or Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System. (Emily Elena Dugdale / LAist)

Those projects are further combined with real-time infrared images and high definition video collected by airplanes to map fire perimeters and hot spots.

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"It allows us to run a projection within the first few minutes of dispatching a brush assignment to our brush fire," said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas. "The projection tells us where the fire is headed and we get that projection within minutes."

He called the system fast and "pretty accurate" at helping firefighters position themselves to stop the advance of fire, as well as to direct neighborhood evacuations. And it's being shared in a collaboration among Los Angeles city and the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Diego.


That's a topic for debate.

Compare two hillside communities that faced fires several weeks apart to see whether their outcomes seem like pure luck, or more like Seneca's classic combo where preparation meets opportunity.

Both were in high-risk fire areas. Both had homes perched high atop slopes covered with quick-burning plants.

The community where most homes survived the Getty Fire is high-income and many of the homes were built of hard-to-burn masonry (after the 1961 Bel Air Fire blew through).

The community devastated in the Sandalwood Fire is lower-income, and comprised of older mobile homes placed close to each other with many flammable objects conveying fire from one to the other.

The 50 to 70 mph winds predicted for the L.A. area during the Getty Fire came in at well under that, partly due to the hilly area's topography. That meant that some of the overnight flare-ups could be tamped down by firefighters before they spread to unburned areas. In total, a dozen homes burned in the Getty Fire and five others were damaged.

Contrast that outcome with that of the Sandalwood Fire in Calimesa on Oct. 10. A garbage truck stopped on a roadside weed patch to offload smoldering debris (so it wouldn't burn the truck). That started a fire that raced up a nearby ridge to the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park above. Two people died in the fire, which destroyed 74 homes and damaged 16 others.

The Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park has been shut down indefinitely after a fire ripped through the community in Riverside County. (Emily Elena Dugdale / LAist)

It will take a formal analysis from fire authorities to truly assess why homes were saved or burned in both places. Factors like building materials, socio-economic status, a capability/willingness of residents to make their parcels safe, and the government's land planning policies might be considered. They probably won't make a ruling on luck.