continued "You can't just watch the movie Backdraft and take the movie as fact. There have been a few studies on the psychology behind it -- particularly in the Southeast, where there have been a few arsons in the past. It's related primarily to being volunteers and wanting to be a hero in the eyes of the community. But out here in the West, there is no history of anything like that. There's a well-known case involving a fire inspector, John Orr, in the city of Glendale, that was concluded some years ago with a life sentence [Orr is the subject of Joseph Wambaugh's latest novel, The Fire Lover: A True Story]. He lit buildings on fire and set brushfires. He was writing a book, and a friend of his read a draft of it and realized that he was living his book. That's how they caught him."
No one knows exactly why fire seasons are getting longer and progressively worse, but Hawkins has a few theories. "Having prevented naturally occurring fires for the last century has been very harmful. It's generated a situation where there's just way too much dead vegetation out there to burn up that should have been removed in a past fire. That kind of messed up the natural cycle of fire."
The problem of "urban interface" with rural areas is also a continual problem for firefighters and one that is getting greater scrutiny from local governments. "There are new standards for brushfires going into effect in a lot of areas of the West," explains Hawkins. "San Diego County has recently passed an ordinance for 100-foot brush clearance, and the [Cleveland] national forest is going to that same level next year. We used to require you to clear 30 feet around your house, but that's not possible on small lots. It relates more to new developments and other existing ones where it's possible to do it. The whole idea of urban interface is a huge misconception that the public is being fed by some people who aren't really experts. Urban interface is actually what you see driving up to L.A.: There's a solid area of development directly adjacent to a solid area of undevelopment, and that's the interface between the developed and the undeveloped, but now that's what people are calling any situation where there are houses in the brush. What that really is is called a 'wildland structural intermix,' and that's what makes fighting these fires so hard on us.
"The fire I just came back from near Castle Rock, Colorado, was a threat to 10,000 structures in 72 different communities. These are all little subdivisions that have been built out in the middle of the forest. When you look at San Diego County, there's been a move to prevent that from happening. That Duncan McFettridge guy has run a movement for years to prevent development of the San Diego backcountry. I think the point he was trying to make was, 'Don't let the private lands of East San Diego County all get converted into subdivisions.' They would have to be protected from brushfires, and that's a very hazardous brushfire area. In Colorado, the situation is worse, because there is so much private land interspersed within the national forest lands. That means they're interspersed with flammable vegetation. We've lost over 1000 homes just in the last month to wildfires in Colorado, Arizona, and California. The outlook is for much worse situations to develop."
The most immediate problem of rural brushfires is when a quick-moving fire endangers housing. Much of San Diego's rural housing is broken up into small portions or isolated altogether, as opposed to subdivisions. Protecting homes gets priority over containing the fire -- tying up firefighters from stopping blazes early. "Fires move faster than the firefighters sometimes, as we saw at Viejas a couple of years ago and in Fallbrook this spring. A house cannot defend itself without firefighters being there, and that's a mighty bad thing when you live in a county with millions of people, because with fast-moving brushfires, you normally can't marshal enough fire engines quickly enough to put a fire engine at every house. When it comes to bad scenarios in this county, I can name a bunch of them. The fire can be eating up homes before the first five fire engines even get into the area. We could be attacking the fire to put it out, but instead, we lose all of our strength protecting the homes. Of course, these fires get bigger, and some escape us and become huge."
Hawkins would not divulge the areas endangered by those scenarios, fearing that he would ultimately be held responsible should someone use that information to commit arson. "The homeowners groups read the newspapers, and so do arsonists. If an arsonist is looking for a worst-case scenario, I'd sure hate to give it to him. I'm a public servant, and that would be bad public service to state where that would be."