When I talked to Dr. Gene Rufi in the Johnny Creek subdivision on the southwest side of Pocatello in 1987, he had just saved his house from fire.
Rufi had climbed on his roof to water down the cedar shakes as the flames of the Johnny Creek fire raged around it, sending off thousands of embers. He had turned on his sprinklers as well, providing a space between the range fire and his home.
Just down Mountain Loop Road, neighbor Keith Staples wasn’t so lucky. That year’s Aug. 31 fire, driven by wind, raced down the slope and quickly engulfed his cedar shake-roofed home, which was surrounded by cedars.
“We were out of town,” Staples told me this month. “We had just come back and it was gone.”
Two miles away and 25 years later, the Charlotte Fire burned through much of the same mixture of range land, junipers and city neighborhoods. The June 28, 2012, blaze caused far more damage, burning 66 homes and 29 outbuildings.
At the time of the Johnny Creek Fire, I had never covered a wildfire. I didn’t realize that I was reporting what’s recognized as a factor in determining which houses burn and which survive — the kind of roof they have and the landscaping around the buildings.
A year after I was at Johnny Creek, I watched as firefighters were able to save the historic log and cedar shake-roofed Old Faithful Inn using Rufi’s tactic. They had been helped by two weeks of thinning throughout the area by the U.S. Army in 1988.
The fire forced Staples and his wife, Janet, to start all over. They spent five years living in a fifth wheel trailer and a truck, heading south for the winter.
“We went places and did things we never would have done,” Staples said of the experience.
He said he feels sorry for the people who have just lost their homes, but he had some encouraging words.
“Tell them the sun will come up tomorrow,” said Staples, now retired. “It will all work out.”
When he rebuilt in 1991, the big cedars were gone. But he kept the cedar shake roof. Old preferences are hard to kill.
TORT REFORM FOR FIRES?
You often hear doctors and others point to tort reform as a key to reducing the cost of health care. The idea is that by limiting huge payouts for malpractice, doctors will avoid so-called defensive medicine.
So how about forest fires?
California Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reform forest liability law to help the state’s forest industry. SFGate.com’s Bob Egelko reports that Brown is pushing legislation that would allow the state or federal government to recover in a lawsuit only “quantifiable” damages in public parks and forests.
The federal government and some environmentalists oppose the measure, in part because they worry that the aesthetic and ecological values lost in fires would not count.
But in a fire-dependent ecosystem, as much of the California forests are, fire does not destroy the ecosystem — even if a burned forest doesn’t look as pretty as a green one.
Forcing forest owners to pay for a lost view doesn’t make sense if a fire likely improved the health of the forest. If marketable timber burns, its owner would be compensated.
You can try to educate juries about this, but a good prosecutor need only show the blackened remains of area where fire burned just right for forest health to make their case for added damages.
It seems odd that the federal government, which holds far more forests in California than any other owner, is fighting Brown.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484