Claremont Insider: The Fire Next Time

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Fire Next Time


[Editor's Note: Thanks to the readers who sent in information and links for this posting.]

It seems as if wildfires burn with a certain regularity through the local foothills, and it makes sense that once the accumulated brush has burned, it takes a few years for the fuel load to build back up to dangerous levels.

The fire that burned through Claremont on the night of Saturday, October 25, 2003, started near Fontana four days earlier and was known as the Grand Prix Fire. It burned to the east and joined up with another fire that is now known as the Old Fire. Both blazes stemmed from arson incidents.

To the west, when it crossed the Los Angeles County line, the Grand Prix Fire became known as the Padua Fire. When the Padua Fire swept through the Claremont Wilderness Park in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 26th, it blew south through Palmer Canyon, taking out 44 of 48 homes there, then continuing on down into Padua Hills, where it damaged the Padua Theater, and destroyed several more homes, including a home built and owned at one time by Millard Sheets, the famous California artist who designed the mosaics on the old Home Savings buildings in Southern California.

The fire continued west and reached a number of homes in the Claraboya area. The city, state, and federal agencies, as well as numerous charitable groups reached out to help victims of the fire.


As the embers cooled, people who lost their homes surveyed the wreckage. The city and county called the Padua Fire an act of God, saying that 100 mph winds whipped up a firestorm. But, as with most catastrophic failures, the roots of the disaster lay not in our stars but in ourselves.

As it turned out, in May of that same year, 2003, the city was re-examining it's Vegetation Management Plan (VMP) for the Claremont Wilderness Park. At the May 8, 2003, Community Services Commission meeting, which included then-commissioner Sam Pedroza, city staff presented a report arguing for the need to change the VMP in response to the slow-moving Williams Fire of 2002 which burned through much of the brush on the upper slopes of the local mountains.

According to the May, 2003 meeting minutes, a representative of the LA County Fire Dept. explained why the changes needed to be made:

The threats have now changed. The original concern was about a large, disastrous fire coming down out of the north from the Angeles National Forest.... There is now a need to address the interior of the park and structural areas, for examples, the homes along Via Padova [near the Padua Theater].

The minutes for that meeting go on to say that Mark Hodnick, at that time Claremont's Facilities and Construction Manager, told the commission that the city really needed to go through and clear brush where homes met up with the Wilderness Park boundaries:
Mr. Hodnick said staff's primary responsibility is the urban wildland interface area that runs along Via Padova through the lower part of Palmer Canyon. That was hand cleared about four years ago, and it is time to go back and do it again.

[Emphasis added.]

The VMP was instituted in 1998 and recognized the need to reduce the buildup of the fuel load in the park through a three-step process of brush clearing using goats, hand-clearing, and controlled burns. Unfortunately, as often happens with maintenance issues, the VMP was never fully implemented. The controlled burns, for instance, were never done because the city claimed it did not have the money.

Back in 1998, the city paid the California Conservation Corp. to go through and clear some of the brush in the park. The CCC did this, though a number of areas were apparently left untouched. Goats were used, and we seem to recall that a number of them died in the Padua Fire.

A new round of hand-clearing and light machine clearance of brush was supposed to have been paid for by a $29,500 grant from the US Dept. of Agriculture. The grant application, written by Mark Hodnick and dated 2/9/2003, recognized the dangerous level of fuel loads on city-owned land that had built up in the Palmer Canyon and Via Padova areas:

The heavy fuel loads caused by this 23 year absence of fire, the presence of flammable ornamental vegetation, and the proximity of structures to the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park have combined to create an extreme fire hazard....

The [brush clearing] project would protect structural and biological assets [people] at risk by clearing hazardous fuels along the eastern border of the Wilderness Park including areas adjacent to residential homes along Lower Palmer Canyon and Via Padova. The goal is to not only protect adjacent structures but to also protect the surrounding wildland/urban interface community from a wind driven conflagration.

Prophetic words indeed. The grant application was denied by USDA, and the brush-clearing was never done.


The residents of Palmer Canyon, and a number of residents in the Padua Hills area eventually filed suit against the City of Claremont for its alleged negligence in failing to properly maintain the brush clearance in the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park.

As any of the residents could have told the city, with ownership comes responsibility. The city had a responsibility to keep the land it owned clear of brush in the areas adjacent to homes. As the minutes and agenda packet from the Community Services Commission's May 8, 2003, meeting show, the city clearly recognized the responsibility but failed to at on it.

The city did not receive its $29,500 from the federal government to do brush clearing, but the city certainly had that money in its discretionary funds. And the $29,500 was well within then-City Manager Glenn Southard's $75,000 spending authority - Southard did not even have to go to the council for approval.

And if $29,500 sound like a lot of money, consider this:
  • The city's insurer settled the Palmer Canyon lawsuit for $17.5 million in March, 2007 - an amount believed to be a record for the insurer, the Joint Powers Insurance Authority.

  • $29,500 is less than the $30,000 self-insured amount the city has to pay on its liability policy (sort of like a deductible) when lawsuits settle.

  • In 2003 the city spent about $13,000 on going away parties for outgoing Councilmembers Al Leiga and Karen Rosenthal.

The city, of course, has not admitted any fault, and the Claremont 400's reaction has been to label the victims of the fire as ingrates. How dare they sue us after we helped them after the fire.

The city's official response is that the Padua Fire was a wind-driven act of God. But we hear through our readers that one of the pieces of evidence in the suit was a security camera videotape in Palmer Canyon shortly before the fire swept through. The camera shows a bit of cloth hanging on limply on a line - no wind.

The Claremont 400, of course, remains in denial over the mismanagement of the Wilderness Park by staff, past councils and past commissions. One hopes they might have been humbled by the fire, might have some pangs of guilt over the loss of homes and personal property, might have learned some lesson from the fire of 2003. One hopes....

The lesson here is no different from the recent bridge collapse in Minnesota, or for that matter any other failure of a human construct. Failure to implement the measures they recognized as crucial for the Wilderness Park was no different than owning a car and failing to change the oil. As we've discovered the hard way, you can pay now for preventative measures or pay later in punitive damages.

Usually paying now is much cheaper in the long run.