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Markels, Alex, and Angie C. Marek. "Fire is a Cruel Neighbor." U.S. News & World Report 135.16 (2003): 32-35. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Sept. 2011.
Section: Nation & World
FIRE IS A CRUEL NEIGHBOR
In California, houses and sickly forests formed an explosive mix; %c Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
LAKE ARROWHEAD, CALIF.--"It was just too little,too late," lamented David Caine as he drove down the smoky streets of this resort east of Los Angeles last Wednesday. Not long before fleeing the flames that engulfed more than 150,000 acres, residents began attacking their tree-choked yards with chain saws, wood chippers, and rakes in a last-ditch attempt to clear drought-stricken vegetation that had turned homes into firetraps.
Hacking away atan overgrown forest that hadn't been thinned in nearly a century, they stacked logs from thousands of beetle-killed pines near street corners. Mounds of wood chips, brown pine needles, and limp branches lined the roadsides, and landfills and staging areas were piled high. "People were fighting hard, but for every 1 tree we cleared there were another 10 that had to come down," says Caine, directorof the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council. By week's end, the Old and Grand Prix fires had destroyed more than 500 nearby houses and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents from the threatened region.
Cooler, wetter weather helped firefighters tame the blaze by Friday, and most homes appeared to be safe. But the fire itself had succeeded in doing what Caine and other worriedlocal officials spent the past three years vainly urging residents and government to do: clear the trees. Speaking a month ago, local fire marshal Peter Brierty presciently called the threat posed by the tinderbox forest "the worst predictable disaster in state history."
The eight other fires that raged last week from just north of here all the way to the Mexican border can't all be blamed on deadtrees. In many areas, they burned oaks or scrubby chaparral. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds also played a role in conflagrations that, all told, charred more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 2,800 homes, and killed 20 people. But the San Bernardino fire is a prime example of the worsening problems along the nation's so-called urban-wildland interfaces, and it's spurring action in Congress to deal with them.Run for the hills. Nestled beside a lake in the mountains above Los Angeles, the Lake Arrowhead region has upward of 400,000 occupants at the height of the tourist season and a burgeoning year-round community. Southern California's 20 percent-plus population increase over the past decade has inspired many residents to flee the congested valleys for nearby hillsides--from the Santa SusanaMountains north of Los Angeles to the San Diego exurbs in the south, just the places where last week's fires raged.
Besides putting houses into a landscape naturally prone to wildfire, the encroachment makes it hard for the government to back away from a century-old policy--widely seen as misguided--of putting out every forest fire as soon it starts. After decades of this practice, ecologists say,...