RSF Association partners with FireWatch to get aerial view of community’s fire risks

Dead and dying trees pose a fire risk for Rancho Santa Fe homes and communities.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe Association has teamed up with FireWatch, a service designed to empower communities to take action to reduce wildfire risk by identifying high-risk zones through aerial imaging.

On Sept. 5 the Association committed $10,000 for the initial phase, flying a three-hour mission to acquire over 1,250 GPS-referenced color and color-infrared images and using the aerial mapping to create a baseline to target and monitor vegetative fuels in Rancho Santa Fe, conduct analysis to determine proximity of homes to wildfire risks and promote community preparedness.

FireWatch founder Richard McCreight said that the threat of a wildfire is now and many communities are vulnerable.

“California wildfires are increasing at an alarming rate. This is associated with warmer and drier climates that are causing more frequent and larger firestorms,” said McCreight, a scientist and commercial pilot who started his career fighting wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service Helitack and the Hotshots.

In 2018, destruction from California wildfires reached a new high—November’s Camp Fire in Paradise was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, causing 85 deaths, destroying 18,804 buildings and costing $16.5 billion.

And it’s only going to get worse, McCreight said. The 2019 fire season is expected to be comparable or worse due to the build-up of flammable vegetation from winter rains and, by the year 2035, scientists believe there will be three times the number of wildfires in the Western states.

McCreight said that reducing flammable vegetation in proximity to homes is the single most important defense against wildfires and until those fuels are reduced or removed, record losses of life and property will continue.

“FireWatch can identify wildfire danger before smoke appears over the ridge…We know from studying fires in California what burns and what doesn’t burn and why. We know that people can be doing a lot more to protect their communities and keep them fire safe,” McCreight said. “This is doable, you have a choice today. Unlike the people in Paradise, you still have a chance to save your community.”

The Association’s partnership with FireWatch was proposed by Caitlin Kreutz, assistant manager of parks and recreation. She said the information gathered will create “vital” resources like a vegetative fuel map that will help the Association understand and identify fire risks and develop mitigation strategies.

“It is amazing what I can see with these images,” Kreutz said. “There are so many practical applications that this has that will help the Association right away.”

Kreutz said they can share findings with the RSF Fire Department to help with enforcement, conduct models to predict how fires will come into the Ranch and use images to help with evacuation route planning.

Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser said evacuation routes are dynamic but through FireWatch they will be able to see areas they need to address to be able to safely get equipment in and people out in the event of a wildfire.

“This is not going to define evacuation routes but will help keep the routes clear because we’re going to need those roads, every single one of them,” Wellhouser said.

During her last three years at the Association, Kreutz has been working to get grant money to help clear out flammable invasive species in main fire corridors into the Ranch—she said the FireWatch imagery will help track the progress of the work and perhaps even lead to more grants in the future.

She also hopes that FireWatch will help empower residents who are dealing with insurance companies—by documenting reductions in fire risk, the current high fire rating of Rancho Santa Fe could be lowered with time, possibly reducing insurance rates for homeowners.

The FireWatch service was developed by McCreight and Gus Calderon. McCreight has over 25 years of aerial imaging experience and has worked in the government, academia and commercial sectors. He has researched and fought nearly 75 wildfires for the U.S. Fire Service’s Fire Science Lab and his research led to a NASA-sponsored project to monitor global environmental climate change.

Calderon is also a commercial pilot with 25 years of experience. He currently owns and operates an air tour company in Carlsbad and founded Airspace Consulting to provide aerial imaging services for the public and private sector.

FireWatch’s aerial surveys use advanced technology that allows them to scale from a leaf on a shrub all the way up to a region. In Rancho Santa Fe, they will start by creating baseline imagery of the community to serve as a reference point for future imaging and analysis.

The mapping highlights stressed vegetation, standing dead fuel around structures as well as vegetation heights. They will be able to pinpoint wildfire risks in proximity to buildings and roads. McCreight said that managing vegetative fuels within 100 feet around structures is critical to minimize a wildfire’s destruction.

“Vegetation is the greatest opportunity to make a difference in our communities, removing flammable vegetation from around our homes,” McCreight said of defensible space. “Fire is an opportunist. It goes where the fuel is.”

As part of his presentation, he showed FireWatch maps of the Rancho Bernardo community where 77 homes were destroyed by the Witch Creek Fire in October 2007. FireWatch has conducted research and done forensic analysis of what caused such destruction – in looking at imagery prior to the fire, vegetative fuels near structures was the greatest predictor of homes more likely to be destroyed.

“The majority of homeowners failed to clear vegetation near their homes for defensible space,” McCreight said.

Unfortunately nearly 11 years later, FireWatch imagery shows that revegetation in the area threatens to replay the same scenario, setting the stage for another destructive fire—and it can be prevented, McCreight said.

“You have a choice, you can remove fuel to save your house and your community…or a wildfire can do it for you,” he warned.

The Association board was very much in favor of the FireWatch partnership, seeing fire prevention and safety as one of the major issues facing the community. Vice President Mike Gallagher said that community education will continue to be a top priority—“The average resident does not appreciate how much danger we are in as a community,” he said.

Director Steve Dunn said he has taken action on his own private property due to a notice from the RSF Fire Department but he has concerns about others in the community who have not. He referenced Linea Del Cielo and the “miles of undisturbed dead and dying eucalyptus” that are either on somebody’s property or maybe even a deserted property and questioned how they will address hazards like that.

Kreutz said it’s a good question and the Association has to decide how they will address dead and dying trees all over the Ranch and how they will share the information gleaned from FireWatch. Kreutz said they have options such as sharing it with the fire department to do enforcement or address it themselves through their regulatory code.

“We need to figure out our plan on how to move forward with this information, and it is probably going to be a bit uncomfortable,” Kreutz said. “But we have to because this is a high-risk fire situation so we cannot afford to wait.”