OC Register - Canyon Fire 2: The line is where firefighters make a stand, living or dying

on Wednesday, 11 October 2017. Posted in News Media

OC Register - Canyon Fire 2: The line is where firefighters make a stand, living or dying

Firefighter veteran Joe Kerr remembers the first time he battled flames where Canyon Fire 2 now rages and shakes off a shudder.

That particular wildfire was back in the 1980s, Kerr recalls, and everything — except training, equipment and courage — is worse now.

More homes don’t mean less fire fuel, the former Orange County Fire Authority captain explains. Instead, more development means more urban-wildland interface to defend.

It’s not just the front line of a wildfire that firefighters face, experts explain. Because of terrain and changing winds, firefighters also have to flank a fire on both sides. But first, they must ensure residents are safe.

“It’s very difficult to deploy resources,” says Kerr, a 34-year veteran. He offers that city departments must be maintained and that there were two unrelated home fires on Monday, one in Laguna Woods, the other in Placentia.

“The big goal is evacuate people and save lives,” agrees Garden Grove Fire Department Capt. Thanh Nguyen, deployed this week with the local Interagency Incident Management Team. “The next goal is to save homes.”

Making matters worse, the drought severity is higher in the 21st century,  experts say. Temperatures, too, are higher. Combined with Santa Ana winds, the result is faster moving and more intense fires.

“Once you get a Santa Ana wind all bets are off,” Kerr says. “Fuel temperatures are higher, fuel moisture drops and you have a volatile condition.”

One need only look to the brown sky above to witness the local impact. In Northern California the scene is even more devastating, with more than 100,000 of acres of land scorched and at least 15 people dead.

While the series of fires rage out of control in Northern California, Nguyen acknowledges teams are stretched thin. “You drain resources in one region,” he says, “and pool in another region.”

Decades ago, big wildfires propelled by Santa Ana winds might consume as much as 1,000 acres an hour, Kerr reports. Today, wildfires are clocked at traveling as fast as 14.3 miles an hour and within 60 minutes can consume as much as 3,000 acres.

Then there is the relatively new phenomenon called “ember storms.”

Wind-propelled embers have been around for as long as there has been fire. But firefighters battling an isolated blaze miles away from a wildfire is a relatively new phenomenon.

Part of the problem, experts say, are exposed eaves and roof vents. These features act as catcher mitts and effectively grab or suck in embers that burn at 572 degrees.

In the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire that burned 30,000 acres and destroyed 314 homes, flying embers were responsible for much of the damage. Firefighters report the same effect this week in Anaheim Hills.

Elevation in Orange County wildlands also plays a significant role in speeding and spreading wildfire.

I recently mountain biked from a spot next to the 91 Freeway to the top of Coal Canyon, opposite from the high point of Canyon Fire 2. My GPS reported a 2,000-foot elevation gain.

Fire traveling uphill, experts note, can move 10 times faster than on flatlands.

Firefighters call these hills “chimneys.”

Sure, a home on a ridgeline has a great view. But that also means that house sits on top of a chimney.

Hand crews on hillsides face especially brutal and dangerous conditions. Climbing in heavy, fire retardant clothing, they carry axes and water. The gear typically weighs about 60 pounds.

Manning huge hoses to try to save homes from burning isn’t any easier. Smoke blinds, fire can come out of nowhere and damaged structures topple.

“It’s hard to breathe,” Nguyen says of manning the line. “Your eyes are tearing and you can’t see.”

Kerr says core body temperatures for firefighters can reach as high as 106 degrees, pulses can soar to 160 and blood pressure skyrockets. “Working levels can be what we normally would consider a critical care patient.”

Death also lurks.

In the 2007 Santiago Canyon fire, a dozen firefighters were trapped and forced to deploy shelters to survive. Four years ago in Arizona, I attended a funeral for 19 hotshots who perished fighting a massive wildfire.

Three were from Orange County.

Where most of us see plants, firefighters see fuel and much of the natural vegetation in coastal hills and the Santa Ana Mountain Range burns hot and fast.

“Coastal sage,” Kerr says, “is designed to burn. That’s part of the way it propagates seeds.”

Fire officials also note that up to 70 percent of hillside brush may be dead. That can mean eight tons of fuel in a single acre.

It is without irony that Kerr reports the very location where Canyon Fire 2 is located in an age-old natural fire corridor.

With conditions growing more dangerous, why risk being a firefighter?

“We want to help people,” offers Nguyen, who’s manned fire lines more times than he can count. “It can be pretty devastating sometimes — it doesn’t get any easier.

“But,” the captain allows, “we want to protect.”

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