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La Tuna Fire could have been a lot worse, firefighters say

BURBANK, CA - SEPTEMBER 03: An S-64E Sikorsky Skycrane firefighting helicopter makes a drop to protect a house during the La Tuna Fire on September 3, 2017 near Burbank, California. At nearly 6,000 acres, the fire is the biggest fire in terms of acreage in Los Angeles city history. About 100 Los Angles firefighters are expected to return soon from Texas, where they've been helping survivors from Hurricane Harvey.    (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images
An S-64E Sikorsky Skycrane firefighting helicopter makes a drop to protect a house during the La Tuna Fire on September 3, 2017 near Burbank, California. The city requires people living in fire-prone areas to clear brush from 200 feet around their house.

Firefighters say the La Tuna Fire could have been a lot worse if not for two things: favorable change in the weather and brush clearance.

The wildfire came within 200 feet of torching 1400 houses. But just five burned, according to the LA Fire Department.

“This fire was a testament to how well citizens have done,” said Ron Barone, a spokesman for the Burbank County Fire Department.

He said after residents of nearly 300 Burbank homes evacuated, the fire department drove through the neighborhood, trying to figure out which homes were safe for firefighters to defend.

What they were looking for was how much brush was present within 200 feet of the house -- things like dead trees, branches hanging over roofs, tall dry grass and dead palm fronds. For people living in high fire hazard zones, leaving this kind of brush around their homes increases the likelihood that the fire department will not be able to prevent them from catching fire.

“Unfortunately, we hate doing this, but we have to write that home off and move on to somewhere else where we can do more good and where we can keep people safe to the best of our ability,” Barone said.

But Burbank didn’t have to write off any homes during this fire. They all had good brush clearance.

All of the homes that burned were in Los Angeles. And some of those homes would have been difficult to defend regardless of how good their brush clearance was, because they were located in hard to access places that would be dangerous for firefighters, said Peter Sanders, spokesman for the LA Fire Department.

“They weren’t in neighborhoods of rows of houses,” he said. “They were up the hill, up long driveways.”

In cases like these, Sanders said, the fire department may not send in firefighters at all, instead choosing to fight the blaze from the air.

The weather also played a role in minimizing damage from the La Tuna fire. Temperatures dropped from the 100s on Saturday to the 80s on Monday. Winds remained below 15 miles per hour throughout the weekend. Higher humidity also helped.

Barone said the fire could have played out much differently had the Santa Ana winds blown through.

“In a wind-driven fire,” he said, “mother nature takes control.”