Even as flames raced up the dry canyon toward his house in rural Agua Dulce, north of Los Angeles, Bob Baker refused to evacuate. In minutes, the inferno was roaring at his backyard. "It's all over," Baker thought. But then, bucketfuls of water began to fall from the sky as a lumbering air tanker passed overhead and doused the flames. Baker's brush with death last Sunday marked the beginning of a disastrous week in southern California's long history of wildfire. Fueled by dry Santa Ana winds blowing from inland deserts, 16 fires ignited virtually at once in the drought-stricken land, from Malibu to the Mexican border. (Two fires were chalked up to arson.) Flames overwhelmed firefighters, scorched more than 800 square miles, displaced more than a half-million people, destroyed or damaged some 2,000 homes and killed at least 12. Overall, insured losses are expected to top $1.6 billion.
When the winds calmed, officials and civilians began asking how to avoid the next inevitable firestorm. There's plenty to do. In San Diego County, for example, rural communities limp by with volunteer fire departments. But few seem willing to address the largest question: how to protect vulnerable new suburbs that each year push deeper into California's flammable wildlands?