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Italian Fire a reminder of our vulnerability

It wasn't planned this way.

When we began organizing our special Friday section marking the 20th anniversary of 1987's devastating Stanislaus Complex Fire, we had no way of knowing it would coincide with what might be the scariest fire to start here in the past three years.

When the Italian Fire began in a marijuana garden above Italian Bar Road on Wednesday night, it was loaded with menace. Within reach of its new flames were thousands of acres of manzanita, buck brush and tangled oak. Decades of unchecked growth, a dry winter and a red-hot summer day made the territory rising up the flanks of Yankee Hill ripe for explosion.

By night, an eerie orange glow lit the bottom of the canyon. By day, a huge plume of smoke visible for miles around rose into the August sky.

If this sounds familiar, it's no surprise. A looming, miles-high mushroom cloud of acrid smoke is the complex fire's signature memory.

Although hard-working crews collared the Italian Fire in a day's time, it was a vivid, sobering reminder that we in the Mother Lode are still at great risk.

Of course there are key differences between the two fires: In 1987, numerous lightning strikes started many blazes at the same time, outflanking firefighters and putting them at an immediate geographical disadvantage. Last week, the Italian Fire started in the middle of the night, was reported early and moved slowly, giving Cal Fire and the Tuolumne County Fire Department time to plan an all-out assault for Thursday morning.

When the dust and smoke had settled, the difference between the two blazes was stark: The Italian Fire burned 100 acres and the complex fire, 147,000 acres.

Many factors — weather, terrain, humidity, slope, fuels and more — also contributed to the differences between Tuolumne County's largest fire and last week's, which history will forget in a year or two.

But the Italian Fire could have been far worse: In 1994 the Creek Fire — which started in nearly the same place — roared up Yankee Hill and threatened the outskirts of Cedar Ridge before it was stopped at 1,400 acres.

Defensible space — the 100-foot clear area property owners are required to keep around there homes — also played a role in the successful fight against the Italian Fire. Long before the sun rose on Thursday, firefighters were scouting Yankee Hill homes to see which had been cleared to the point where a stand against the flames might be made.

Alan and Emily O'Neil of Yankee Hill, featured in our Stanislaus Complex special section as one of a growing number of people who choose to live in isolated areas vulnerable to fire, were evacuated as the Italian Fire approached. Their home, with more than ample clearance, survived.

Bigger tankers, better communications and higher technology than that of ‘87 also contributed to the great job firefighters did.

Still, we may have dodged a bullet.

And that towering plume of smoke that the Italian Fire kicked up shows that risk is still high. Although kids are back in school and summer is drawing to a close, fire danger typically peaks in September.

As two fires 20 years apart prove, this is no time to get casual or complacent.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.


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