Tuesday, July 26

Unprecedented Sand Fire: The Perfect Firestorm

“All the experience we’ve seen with fire, that’s all out the window. ”

What I found very surprising is that the fire swept through large amounts of dried brush -- which had been there for 60 or 70 years!  So there must have been many tons accumulated!  Why weren't controlled burns ever conducted to clear the deadwood? 

I wonder if this was one of those situations that kept falling between the cracks of the argument about how to manage forests: controlled burns vs. do everything to prevent fires? 

For background on the argument, which has gone on for decades with no resolution, see the transcript for the PBS NOVA May 2002 documentary, Fire Wars, which I've highlighted at least twice on this blog over the years.  

But if that's what prevented more than a half-century's worth of brush from being cleared, one would think the very severe prolonged drought in that part of California would have settled the argument, at least for that situation. 

In any case the Sand Fire produced a type of conflagration that fire officials had never seen before.....

By Jim Holt, Signal Senior Staff Writer
July 25, 2016 8:50 p.m.
The Santa Clarita Valley Signal [California]

The Sand fire – which burned more than 35,000 acres in four days, destroying 18 homes and claiming one life – has found a place in Santa Clarita Valley history as a fire unlike any previous one, fire officials said.

“All the experience we’ve seen with fire, that’s all out the window,” said Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “You’ve got to look at the four major fires we’ve had in this county in six weeks. We’ve seen fires explode all over this county.”

In more than three decades of fighting fires, Tripp said, he has never seen four major fires in Sand Canyon during June and July.

And he should know.

“I was out here for the Station fire when it was coming right into Sand Canyon. I was the incident commander for the Sayer fire when it burned down the mobile home park in Sylmar. Then we had another one called the Cross fire that was coming down Placerita, but we’ve never seen this type of fire.”

Homeowners on Iron Canyon Road, which branches off Sand Canyon and where two homes were destroyed Saturday, told The Signal separately that the fire came “ripping” into their neighborhood.

The county’s top fire official, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby, said of the Sand Fire: “In one day we saw this fire go from 11,000 acres burned to 22,000 acres.”

Sharing what insight he has to explain the uniqueness of the Sand fire, he added: “This is the fifth year of an ongoing drought, so we have very extreme fire behavior.

“Some of our citizens have seen fires before,” he said. “But these are not normal times.”

When the fire whipped through Bear Divide – not far, ironically, from the U.S. Forest Service Bear Divide Fire Station on Sand Canyon Road – it swept through one canyon and swiftly engulfed five dwellings owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Tripp explained the fire’s growth.

“The fire came through and blasted the backside of those homes,” he said, referring to homes on Iron Canyon Road and Condor Ridge Road. “Most the homes that were consumed were destroyed when the fire was coming down from Bear Divide like a freight train.

“It started consuming houses that were non-defendable,” Tripp said.

Part of what made the Sand fire unique was its exposure to brush that’s had more than a half century to become brittle, dry and dangerous, he said.

“We always knew the potential was there because the fuel is old,” he said. “It’s 60, maybe 70-year-old brush, so we knew the potential was there.

“But everything lined up perfectly,” he said. “The vegetation stressed from the drought, the wind at red flag conditions, with the heat and the low humidity – it came down like a freight train.”


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