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Lessons Learned From the West Fire & Paradise Fire: Roads Have an Impact on Fire Prevention and Safety

By George Barnett

February 2019 – As someone that has been evacuated four times in 20 years due to fire threat, that experience caused me to jot down “my thoughts” on fire preparedness in Alpine, and to try to draw some comparisons between what has been learned from the West Fire and what has been apparently learned so far from the Paradise Fire.

This is an important matter, and I hope the attached is informative….

Learning from the West Fire & the Paradise Fire

There seems to be no formal reports yet on both fires. But observations are being made by the media. What are the differences between these two fires according to the media?

Wiki records that residential development in wildland-urban interface areas such as Paradise and its vicinity are often located in state responsibility areas, where the State of California provides primary fire prevention and suppression. Paradise was served by a mix of its local fire department and the State’s CalFire.

Alpine is accountable for its fire prevention and firefighting through the Alpine Fire Protection District. Being an unincorporated township, Alpine has fallback support from the San Diego County Fire Authority. By agreement with all its neighboring sister agencies, Alpine Fire is in the process of annexing east Alpine so as to improve service in that rural area of the town.

The Paradise Fire Department webpage records, “By contracting with CAL FIRE the Town of Paradise (sic – double the population of Alpine) is able to staff two fire stations with three-person engine companies, and one station with a two-person engine company.

Alpine Fire Protection District strives to maintain four-person engine companies. The National Fire Protection Association suggests five-person engine companies in critically dangerous areas when weather conditions are severe. Alpine is also served by the County Fire Authority fire station in Harbison Canyon, the US Forest Service fire station on east Alpine Boulevard, Viejas Fire Department, and by the Sycuan Fire Department. And the eight-station Heartland Fire & Rescue Service serving El Cajon, La Mesa and Lemon Grove is an important back-up.

The Union Tribune reports, “A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Paradise ignored repeated warnings of the risk its residents faced, crafted no plan to evacuate the area all at once, entrusted public alerts to a system vulnerable to fire, and did not sound citywide orders to flee even as a hail of fire rained down… But interviews and records released by the city and county show the emergency warning system failed on many levels…. Most residents said they relied on word of mouth, emergency vehicles driving down their streets with loudspeakers, or the sight of flames.”

Among other systems, Alpine is served by the County’s “AlertSanDiego” for disaster notification. Based on 9-1-1 data, it has Voice over IP, cellular, and email connectivity. And more recently has as associated App allowing families and friends to network. As with the County Fire Agency, this notification system evolved after Supervisor Diane Jacob observed critical inter-agency communications difficulties during the 2003 Cedar Fire. Alpine Fire also participates in the Heartland Communications Agency which provides sophisticated dispatching of multiple response agencies for firefighting and medical emergency on an East County regional basis.

The Union-Tribune also reports of citizens in Paradise blocked into dead-end roads unable to escape in their vehicles due to traffic congestion on the main connecting roads. This observation applies to Alpine, a linear town flowing west and east with few lateral roadway connections.

The Alpine Sun reported, “President Neville Connell of the Greater Alpine Fire Safe Council revealed that research after Alpine’s West Fire on July 6 shows that roads have an impact on fire prevention and safety. The blaze destroyed or damaged 38 homes and 36 other buildings. There was very little damage to buildings on east-west roads in the fire area, but defending structures on roads that “spread out like fingers” was more difficult and those buildings were more prone to damage, Connell said. “It provided us with some very interesting conclusions in how (sic- residential) development should go forward in Alpine,” he said.

How has Alpine responded to that traffic circulation threat? After vigorous discussion at town hall meetings and workshops, this language was approved as a core Policy & Goal for the Alpine Community Plan. “Support the establishment of alternative means of ingress/egress to/from Pal o Verde Ranch and/or other existing neighborhoods.” Further at the last Community Plan workshop, Alpiners reviewed and commented on several proposed lateral roadways, especially across east Alpine. (see below chart)

Despite the Herculean efforts of dedicated, heroic people trying to save Paradise, a town twice the size of Alpine was destroyed. Paradise’s population h ad been basically flat the past quarter century. It would seem that available firefighting resources were limited compare d to those available to Alpine. It would seem that

Emergency alert systems were deficient. It would seem that road and traffic circulation limited emergency egress and ingress.

Alpine is half the size of Paradise, and is growing in population. Firefighting resources available to Alpine are greater, and expansion to the east of Al pine is under way. County emergency communications and East County joint agency dispatch systems are modern and becoming state of the art through wireless smart phone Apps. Still, Alpine took a big hit from the West Fire, and that seems attributable in part to the town’s limited roadway networks. But Alpine recognizes that, and its residents have approved Goals & Policies to improve that limitation a cross the town, and especially in the more rural eastern areas; and they are making plans to improve traffic networks and emergency ingress/egress.

Does that guarantee there will never be another wild fire? Of course not! But the town, its people and its firefighting and emergency service Agencies are planning to improve fire protection and firefighting as the town inevitably grows.

1 comment to Lessons Learned From the West Fire & Paradise Fire: Roads Have an Impact on Fire Prevention and Safety

  • Michael Alena

    Pretty verbose. If I understand correctly this is saying, among other things, that with more roads, more development should take place. We are to assume this is the case in the eastern part of Alpine otherwise the map would show all of Alpine. No one I know, nor anyone at the County, knows anything about any proposed new roads for this area. CNF knows of no new roads proposed through federal land, which the map on this post insinuates. Even if there were new “east/west” roads added, those of us who just lived through the West Fire know that our limited evacuation options caused many of us to sit in traffic jams. In short, this is a frivolous and nonsensical argument.

    Going beyond nonsensical, it is a dangerous post because it ignores our true situation here in Alpine. Take a look at this: http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2018/11/19/lessons-from-california-wildfires/

    A quote from the above that we should all print and tape on our walls is: “The wind was pushing the wildfire at a rate of up to 1 football field a second! Indeed, within 12 hours, the fire traveled 17 miles and had burned 55,000 acres!”

    In her latest State of the County address, Supervisor Jacob stated: “We are one Santa Ana away from another disaster.”

    Our only option, considering the fuel on CNF, the chimney effect of the Sweetwater River basin and the prevailing Santa Ana wind direction/speeds is to limit development…or risk putting many lives at risk. We cannot put our trust in arguments that put our families and property at more risk than they already are.

    Finally, I see that this author has his home up for sale, a home that was saved during the West Fire only by a last second aerial drop. Is he moving to an area with a better (or worse) road network or perhaps even out of town?

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