Roadside fires can turn deadly — but a Cal Poly instructor may have a way to prevent them

Smokey Bear’s famous admonition — “Only you can prevent wildfires” — is only partially correct.

Personal responsibility matters, for sure, but utilities like PG&E also need to step up their prevention programs.

So do Caltrans and other public agencies responsible for maintaining the highway medians and shoulders where roadside fires can ignite, and quickly turn into infernos that consume thousands of acres.

Caltrans and other local agencies, including San Luis Obispo County, typically do annual mowing of roadside areas prior to the start of fire season.

That helps, but as a fire prevention tool it isn’t all that effective. Plenty of large fires (including some in San Luis Obispo County) have started in areas that had been mowed.

Mowing is also time-sensitive — do it too late in the season, and the very act of trying to prevent a fire can actually cause a fire. That happened in August 1979, when four young firefighters in Nipomo died in the Spanish Fire on Highway 166, between Santa Maria and New Cuyama. The fire started when a Caltrans mower blade struck a rock.

It would be far better to prevent roadside fires from starting in the first place.

A Cal Poly adjunct professor, Jesse Acosta, may have figured out how to do exactly that — and Caltrans and other agencies should jump on the chance to test it out.

Building a better retardant

Acosta is a member of a team that’s developed a new type of long-lasting fire retardant that could be a game-changer, especially in fire-prone states like California.

Cal Poly lecturer Jesse Acosta helped develop a new type of long-lasting fire retardant that can be sprayed proactively at the beginning of fire season. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

The product, called Fortify, contains a gel developed for use in medicine; when added to injections, it can deliver a long-lasting supply of medication to patients.

Mixed with fire retardant, it can have the same effect: It can inoculate vegetation for long periods of time, making it flame-resistant.

The product already has been tested in San Luis Obispo County and could be in use here as early as next fire season — the nonprofit Fire Safe Council of San Luis Obispo County has received a grant to spray Fortify along the Cuesta Grade.

“We are very interested and excited about trying this product,” said Dan Turner, a retired County Fire chief who is now manager of the Fire Safe Council. “We believe it has high statewide applicability.”

First, though, Caltrans has to approve, and the agency has been tight-lipped about its review of the product.

This is the response we were given when we asked about the approval process: “Caltrans is reviewing the application for the use of this product to ensure that it is safe for the environment, including animals, our highway workers and the general public.”

Cuesta Grade a hot spot

The Fire Safe Council has focused particularly on Cuesta Grade, since it’s a frequent location of roadside fires, including the 2015 Cuesta Fire that burned nearly 2,500 acres and threatened the town of Santa Margarita.

A helicopter drops water on the Cuesta Fire on Aug. 19, 2015. The fire, allegedly sparked by a tow chain, burned 2,500 acres. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Investigators believe it was caused by sparks from a tow chain that ignited dry vegetation. A truck pulling a fifth-wheel and a VW Beetle was suspected, but was never found.

The consequences of a fire on the Cuesta Grade there can be particularly severe, since it’s the location of major electric transmission lines, communications sites and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Practically every region of California has its own version of the Cuesta Grade, which is why focusing on prevention of roadside fires in these areas is so important.

Statewide, proactively spraying a long-lasting retardant at the beginning of fire season could save lives and billions of dollars in fire losses.

But if it doesn’t prove viable, the state must move beyond mowing and look at other ways to reduce roadside fires, especially as fire seasons grow longer and more destructive.

Maintaining the status quo is risking lives, property and natural resources, and it’s creating a potential liability for Caltrans and other agencies responsible for highway right-of-ways.

For example, following the deadly 2018 Carr Fire in Redding, which started when a spark from the rim of a flat tire ignited vegetation, more than 400 people joined a class action lawsuit against Caltrans and the city of Redding for allegedly failing to trim vegetation near the fire’s origin.

‘One less spark’

In their public safety campaigns, fire agencies are using a new slogan — “One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire” — to draw attention to the role vehicles and other equipment play in igniting fires.

They urge checking tow chains, tire pressure and brakes; keeping vehicles in good repair; and avoiding parking on dry brush.

Expanding beyond the old-school fire prevention advice dispensed by Smokey Bear — don’t play with matches, put out that campfire, etc. — is smart, but it’s not a cure-all.

The 2015 Cuesta Fire burns on the east side of the Grade.

Inevitably, drivers will have flat tires.

Cars will overheat.

And drivers will have no choice but to pull over at less-than-ideal spots where there are thigh-high weeds and grasses.

In the long run, it will be far less costly to invest in preventive technologies and products — be it a next-generation fire retardant, fire-resistant landscaping, or “hardscaping” particularly risky areas with concrete, rock or some other hard surface — than to spend billions of dollars fighting fires.

This editorial has been updated to include additional information about the development of a new type of long-lasting fire retardant.

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