FireWatch partnership to create defensible space maps for RSF homeowners

An aerial view of Rancho Santa Fe's forest.
(Gus Calderon)

The Rancho Santa Fe Association continues to take a proactive approach in keeping the community fire-safe by approving a second phase with FireWatch. Last year the RSF Association teamed up with FireWatch, a service that empowers communities to take action to reduce wildfire risk by identifying high-risk zones through aerial imaging. On Oct. 1, the RSF Association board approved committing $48,000 toward the next phase, a landowner defensible space mapping project that will provide valuable information for every resident in the Covenant.

Caitlin Kreutz, the RSF Association’s fire preparedness administrator, shared that neighboring Fairbanks Ranch Homeowners Association has also signed up for FireWatch.

“They have seen the value in this which is a really good thing for us because it increases our defensible space,” Kreutz said. “I think people are really understanding that communities need to step up and take a larger role in managing this. State and local governments can only do so much with the budgets they’re allowed, it’s going to fighting fires not prevention. Environmental laws prevent logging and prescribed burns…We’re finding community HOAs are really making the most progress.”

California wildfires are increasing at an alarming rate and every year the state, unfortunately, sets new records.

In 2018, the 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 in damages. In 2019, communities throughout the state including Rancho Santa Fe experienced unprecedented power outages as a preventative measure against wildfire. And so far in 2020, the state has set a new record of acreage burned with 4 million acres burned, the largest wildfire season recorded in state history.

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.

“It’s a no-brainer that this needs to be on the front of everybody’s agenda,” said Kreutz, complimenting the board for setting fire-preparedness as one of its top priories for 2020-21.

The initial $10,000 FireWatch phase included flying missions to acquire over 1,250 GPS-referenced color and color-infrared images. The aerial mapping created a baseline to target and monitor vegetative fuels in Rancho Santa Fe, conduct analysis to determine the proximity of homes to wildfire risks and promote community preparedness.

During her last four years at the RSF Association, Kreutz has been working to get grant money to help clear out flammable invasive species in main fire corridors into the Ranch. Kreutz has used the 2019 and 2020 imaging for mapping and analysis for management purposes as well as for grant applications.

“This has been a tremendous help. I personally have used this a lot in determining where I’m going to be using grant funds and where I’m taking out trees,” Kreutz said. “The information allows me to access funds because I have this top-of-the-line, industry-standard data and mapping that I can share.”

With this second part of phase two, the landowner defensible space mapping, imaging will be used to create a custom database for landowners so they are able to see and understand their defensible space. Military-grade imagining software will allow homeowners to see the stressed and dead vegetation in their defensible space zones, which can be used as a baseline for an arborist to develop a mitigation plan. The imaging can also be used to track progress over time—Kreutz said this can be especially useful to show insurance companies how a homeowner has increased defensible space as well as track the overall Covenant progress.

Selective information will be shared with the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District but images will omit any private or sensitive areas—the images shared will only include the California State Responsibility Area of defensible space.