2008 Chino Hills Freeway Complex Fire:

What caused the fire?

Year after another, the state of California suffers from wild fires that c
Figure 1 Chino Hills. Taken by the author
ost lives, fortunes, effort and feeling of security of inhabitants of the state. The year of 2008 was could not escape such a fate. Once again, Southern California was shocked at the devastating force of wildfires. Living in California, one was familiar with the idea of wildfire yet did not realize the horror it accompanied. On the evening of November fifteenth, 2008, one stood watching along with many other spectators on top of the hill on which one’s house is built on watching a line of fire as long as one’s eyes could see creeping and threatening to encroach his beloved city setting ablaze the hills not more than a few miles away. Thankfully, the fire was contained before causing much harm in the City of Chino Hills, the experience was more than enough to make the inhabitants of the city
realize the potential and feasible threat of wildfires. Through this article, one seeks to find out the factors that might have caused the incident in 2008 and ways to prevent or mitigate wildfires in the future.

About wildfires
interFire.org, a website which claims to be “the complete resource
Figure 2 Higher Vegetation.  Northern Rockies Incident Information Center.
Figure 2 Higher Vegetation. Northern Rockies Incident Information Center.
for fire services, fire insurers, law enforcement and others whose duties involve arson investigation, fire investigation safety and fire scene training,” includes ample amount of information on wildfire investigation. According to the website, wildfires are consist two phases. The fist phase involves the burning of the ground materials also known as low vegetation. During the second phase, fire spreads vertically and burns higher vegetation also known as aerial fuels. There are many different factors that influence ignition and spread of the fire. The list includes types of vegetation, availability and density of vegetation, wind, topography and geography, climate and weather. The possible causes for wildfires are just as diverse.

Benefits of Wildfires
When a wildfire occurs, many people will only discuss the bad things about it. The media will only broadcast about the damages that are happening to any forest but the benefits of wildfires are rarely discussed and explained to the audience. The audience will think that wildfires will destroy nature and that it will only hurt our environment. There are some things that will not benefit like causing smoke in the atmosphere and the ash flying may affect our breathing air quality. There are major benefits to wildfires. One reason is that it clears all of the old and dead trees and makes room for the newer trees to grow. The ashes from the trees will also help the nutrients in the soil. This will help the nature cycle to continue.

Possible Causes for Wildfires

I. Incendiary Fire
II. Lightning
III. Spontaneous Heating
Figure 3. Lightning Strikes Forest. National Interagency Fire Center
Figure 3. Lightning Strikes Forest. National Interagency Fire Center

IV. Campfires
V. Smoking materials
VI. Outdoor debris burning
VII. Electricity, oil, and gas machinery
VIII. Equipment failure
IX. Railroad
X. Fireworks
XI. Controlled burn
XII. Natural Disaster
XIII. Focusing of sunlight.

The 2008 Chino Hills Freeway Complex Fire
Last year's fire that terrified and caused much damage to residents of Southern California cities including Corona, Chino Hills, Yorba Linda, Brea and Anaheim started on the fifteenth of November 2008 seven past nine in the morning. The fire is reported to have originated in the Santa Ana riverbed near the base of Prado dam. Then the fire rapidly spread westwards into Orange, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles County. Then, it merged with another fire started near Brea. The fire blazed on for four and a half days until it was completely contained on the evening of November nineteenth.

Damage Assessment
In total, the fire burnt 30,305 acres of land, destroying 314 residence buildings, four commercial buildings, forty three outbuildings, and caused 16.1 million dollars of monetary damage. Numerous organizations were involved in containing the fire. CAL FIRE, Orange County Fire Authority, Corona City Fire, City of Anaheim, Chino Valley Fire, City of Brea, Los Angeles County Fire, and California Highway Patrol were employed in fighting the fire, managing the traffic, and protecting the civilians. A total of 1633 fire personnel from forty eight fire crews, 156 fire engines, four bulldozers, and five water tenders were called to duty.

The Causes
According to CAL FIRE, the cause of the fire is yet to be revealed and is still under investigation; however, OCFA (
Figure 4. Catalytic Converter Flared. Irrelevant to the incident
Orange Country Fire Authority) mentioned the possibility of a vehicle's exhaust equipment causing the fire while the Orange County Register stated that the catalytic converter of a vehicle's exhaust system may have created sparks that ignited the abundant dried bushes along freeway. Santa Ana Wind blowing forty to sixty miles per hour aided the fire to rapidly spread at the early stage of the fire and continued to be an obstacle as firefighters sought to contain the fire. Making the situation worse, humidity dipped below ten percent and temperature remained extremely high. It is unclear whom or what is to be blamed for the blaze. While the true cause of the fire remains still a mystery, the impact the incident had on many residents of Southern California could not be any more real.
Figure 5. Min/Max temperatures 11/15/08. NOAA Hydrometorological Prediction Center
Figure 5. Min/Max temperatures 11/15/08. NOAA Hydrometorological Prediction Center

Figure 5, above, illustrates the increased fire risk that is partially influenced by higher temperatures. In the summer when humidity is low and heat is high, it takes very little for a fire to erupt, even - as is speculated - from a wayward spark off of someone's vehicle. If a fire erupts in a dry area that has not burned for many years, there is little time to waste in trying to stop it; a fire with that much fuel will burn as long and fervently as it can.

In Chino Hills, where there was relatively less damage, thousands of residents had to evacuate their homes while many onlookers anxiously watched their proud Californian hills burn right in front of their eyes. In Brea, Yorba Linda, Corona, and Ahaheim, the fire consumed 187 residences and damaged 127 residential structures and four commercial buildings. Witnessing such devastating force of the fire Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange county and Riverside County. On Tuesday, the eighteenth of November, President Bush declared Southern California a disaster area and allowed federal aid to areas affected by the incident. This included Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. There have not been any casualties related to the incident reported; however, a number of firefighters suffered what is reported as mild injuries. It is incredible that small sparks from a faulty exhaust system could cause such an incident to cause multi million dollar monetary loss and alarm the state's governor and the nation's president. It is told that the monumental amount of damage was mainly due to the weather condition during the incident.

November 03, 2009 Diamond Bar Freeway 60 Fire
This year, there was yet another fire near Chino Hills Area. The fire started along the 60 freeway. This time, the authorities believe they have found the definite cause of the fire. ABC7 reported that a man driving a Ford pickup truck was later stopped on the freeway by Ontario police and was questioned then released. The fire had multiple ignition points and the investigators believe that the malfunctioning catalytic converter of the pickup truck was responsible for spewing out hot metal chunks at different locations and caused the initial sparks.

Figure 6 Human and Nature. California Chaparral Institue
Figure 6 Human and Nature. California Chaparral Institue
As interFire.org teaches, there exist many factors that may cause wildfires. From their list of causes for wildfire, more than half are initiated by humans. Although the 2008 and 2009 fires seemed to have been caused accidentally, they were indeed caused by human activities. California Chaparral Institute claims that “once humans (starting with Native Americans) entered the scene, the number of fires gradually increased to levels today that are damaging shrubland ecosystems.” As it is hard to simply put a finger on a single suspect for wildfires, maybe the real cause of wildfires is California is us, the inhabitants of the state, who take advantage of nature without ever considering consequences.

ABC&. Fire in Diamond Bar fully contained.” Nov 03, 2009. <http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/los_angeles&id=7098134>
ABC7. "Freeway Comples Fire Fully Contained." Nov 19, 2008.
California Chaparral Institute. “Native American Burning & Natural Fire Regimes Problems with current assumptions.” Nov 30, 2009.
< http://www.californiachaparral.org/enativeamericans.html>
CBS2.com. "Freeway Complex Fire Destroying Homes in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills." Nov 16, 2008. <http://cbs2.com/local/Corona.Fire.Yorba.2.865378.html>
CBS2.com. "Triangle Complex Fire Declared Fully Contained." Nov 19, 2008.
Corbitt-Dipierro, Cathleen. interFIREonline. “Investigating Wildfires: Part One.” Nov 30, 2009. <http://www.interfire.org/features/wildfires.asp>

State of California. "CAL FIRE - Incidents." Nov 19, 2008