Why are Wildfires a Threat to the City of Sierra Madre?

For thousands of years, fires have been a natural part of the ecosystem in Southern California. However, wildfires present a substantial hazard to life and property in communities built within or adjacent to hillsides and mountainous areas.

There is a huge potential for losses due to wildland/urban interface fires in Southern California. According to the Cal Fire, there were over seven thousand reportable fires in California in 2003, with over one million acres burned.12 According to Cal Fire statistics, in the October, 2003 Firestorms, over 4,800 homes were destroyed and 22 lives were lost.

The 2003 Southern California Fires

The fall of 2003 marked the most destructive wildfire season in California history. In a ten day period, 12 separate fires raged across Southern California in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The massive “Cedar” fire in San Diego County alone consumed 2,800 homes and burned over a quarter of a million acres.

What is Susceptible to Wildfire?

Growth and Development in the Interface
The hills and mountainous areas of Sierra Madre are considered to be interface areas (geographical point where the wilderness and urban area meets). The development of homes and other structures is encroaching onto the wildlands and is expanding the wildland/urban interface. The interface neighborhoods are characterized by a diverse mixture of varying housing structures, development patterns, ornamental and natural vegetation and natural fuels.

In the event of a wildfire, vegetation, structures and other flammables can merge into unwieldy and unpredictable events. Factors important to the fighting of such fires include access, firebreaks, proximity of water sources, distance from a fire station and available firefighting personnel and equipment. Reviewing past wildland/urban interface fires shows that many structures are destroyed or damaged for one or more of the following reasons:

  •   Combustible roofing material
  •   Wood construction Structures with no defensible space
  •   Fire department with poor access to structures
  •   Subdivisions located in heavy natural fuel types
  •   Structures located on steep slopes covered with flammable vegetation
  •   Limited water supply
  •   Winds over 30 miles per hour

Road Access
Road access is a major issue for all emergency service providers. As development encroaches into the rural areas of the county, the number of houses without adequate turn-around space is increasing. In many areas, there is not adequate space for emergency vehicle turnarounds in single-family residential neighborhoods, causing emergency workers to have difficulty doing their jobs because they cannot access houses. As fire trucks are large, firefighters are challenged by narrow roads and limited access, when there is inadequate turn around space, the fire fighters can only work to remove the occupants, but cannot safely remain to save the threatened structures.

Road access is a problem in the canyon area of Sierra Madre. Typically, fire personnel have to back up fire apparatus up canyon roadways in case they need to evacuate, should the fire overwhelm them.

Water Supply
Fire fighters in remote and rural areas are faced by limited water supply and lack of hydrant taps. Rural areas are characteristically outfitted with small diameter pipe water systems, inadequate for providing sustained firefighting flows.

Historically, Sierra Madre has never had a water supply problem when it comes to firefighting activities. We supply our own water through a total of four wells and two tunnels. In tandem with these water sources Sierra Madre also has two large reservoirs and one smaller one.

Wildfire Mitigation Activities

Existing mitigation activities include current mitigation programs and activities that are being implemented by county, regional, state, or federal agencies or organizations. Sierra Madre has a weed abatement program that has proven to be successful in resident’s taking the initiative towards proper brush clearance.

The City of Sierra Madre also has an extensive public outreach program designed to inform the average resident of the threat of wildfires. Periodically and time permitting, fire personnel will do comprehensive site visits designed to educate property owners. In tandem with these efforts and depending on the budget, the Sierra Madre Fire Dept. hosts an annual safety and awareness fair.