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Natural Wildfires Now Burn More Than Brush - People Are Here With PM-Winds-Fires, Bjt

December 10, 1988

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. (AP) _ One of the wildfires that regularly race through California’s wildlands turned Jim and Annette Merenda’s home into a smoke-filled shambles with cracked glass, melted blinds and charred trim.

They were among the lucky ones.

Five houses on their dead-end street in the Sierra Nevada foothills 50 miles northeast of Sacramento were reduced to smoking heaps of white ash.

Wildfire is a natural part of the wildlands. But where flames once swept through acres of dry chapparal and forest, they now threaten houses, businesses and human lives.

″Before, all we had to worry about was putting out the fire,″ said Lisa Boyd, a forestry department spokeswoman in Sacramento. ″Now there are all those houses out there, and we have to contend with them.″

California’s population has grown from 18 million to 28 million in 20 years. Some of the greatest growth is in the wildlands, where an estimated 2 million homes now are tucked among trees or perched on remote ridges.

Foresters say this ″urban-wildland interface″ can lead to disaster. More people means more fire. The number of California wildfires has climbed 27 percent a year since 1980 and is expected to keep growing; 80 percent are human-caused and 20 percent are sparked by lightning.

Last year, in one of California’s worst fire seasons, 12,000 wildfires killed 11 people, destroyed 114 homes and caused $150 million in damage.

So far this year, 9,800 fires have caused more than $61 million in damage. The 33,500-acre ″49er Fire″ alone destroyed 148 dwellings and caused nearly $23 million in damage. Heavy November rain helped cool things down, but officials are worried about next summer and beyond.

Protecting homes can be a losing battle when the land is ready to burn, as it was in the 49er fire, which reportedly started along Highway 49 - named for the 1849 Gold Rush towns it winds among. Each minute, 40 mph winds fanned the flames across more than 30 acres of tinder-dry brush and timber, often forcing firefighters to scramble.

At the height of the blaze, which began Sept. 11 and lasted a week, fire prevention officer Charlie Jakobs stood on the Merendas’ street and watched a home burn to the ground in 10 minutes.

On a recent return trip, Jakobs said the difference between the Merendas’ house and a heap of ash 40 feet away was a matter of clearing brush. More than 80 percent of the buildings destroyed by the 49er fire had brush growing too close.

Ranchers who settled this land built homes of fire-resistant stucco and Spanish tile and cleared away brush to create what Jakobs calls ″defensible space.″ Newcomers are more likely to choose cedar siding and wood-shake roofs, which he likens to stacking kindling on top of a house.

A ridgetop home among the trees may offer a fine view, he said, but it’s like ″sitting on top of a match head.″

Some cities have outlawed shake roofs, but manufacturers have opposed proposals for a statewide ban. The California Board of Forestry was ordered by the legislature to establish standards for road access and water supplies in fire-prone areas. They should be in effect by next summer.

State law does require homeowners to keep brush cleared at least 30 feet from their houses, remove overhanging branches and install spark arresters on chimneys. Violators face $1,000 fines and six months in jail, but enforcement agencies with tight budgets and other priorities rarely issue citations.

Most insurers also require brush to be cleared before they write a homeowner’s policy in the wildlands, but they can’t afford to keep checking, either, said Bob Smith, agency manager for State Farm Insurance in Sacramento.

Driving through an unburned area a few miles from the 49er fire’s devastation, Jakobs was astounded by the homeowners who seemed convinced their houses could never burn. He screeched to a halt in front of a $150,000 home clinging to the side of a canyon. A wooden deck hung out over a thick growth of drought-parched bay laurel, canyon oak and manzanita. Trees crowded the house on three sides; on the fourth a narrow driveway angled steeply up to the road.

″There are acres and acres of fuel beneath this house. Look at that driveway. We couldn’t get a fire truck down there. There’s no way we could save this house. It’s like a fuse on a firecracker. Light the fuse and bang 3/8 It’s going to go off.″

Many rural newcomers wrongly assume they will be protected in case of fire, Jakobs said. The reality is that wildfire can quickly outstrip the capacity of any fire department to protect every home. The Department of Forestry claims to be the nation’s largest firefighting agency, controlling more than 860 fire engines and 21 air tankers. But even that is not enough.

″There aren’t enough fire engines in all of America to protect the structures within our county’s boundaries,″ said Jakobs.

So fire officials are staking their hopes on an ambitious publicity campaign called ″Fire Safe, California 3/8″ Its purpose is to teach homeowners how to avoid starting fires and how to protect their homes if fire comes their way.

Jakobs tells people the law and gives tips, like how to use fire-resistant plants in landscaping and how to design a more fireproof home. This is the second year of the publicity campaign.

Ken Guldenpfennig narrowly missed contributing to the state’s fire statistics. The 60-year-old retiree from Minnesota is building a home off a narrow dirt road in a forested area hit hard by the 49er blaze.

Lured to California by visions of warm winters and country living, Guldenpfennig seldom thought of the danger - until flames licked to within 3 feet of the trailer he’s occupying while working on his home. Now he talks of clearing more brush and installing an emergency generator to pump water in case a future fire knocks out power.

″If you don’t learn from this,″ he said, ″you never will.″

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