By Karen Billing
Wildfires have been long been a threat to the Rancho Santa Fe community.
At a fire safety meeting on July 23, hosted by the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club, longtime resident Tom Clotfleter told tales of the 1943 fire that came through Lake Hodges and burned all the way to Solana Beach.
The experience of sheltering in place led Clotfelter to join a volunteer firefighting squad in the Ranch in 1949, a crew who protected the community in a metal-sided camper.
The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District has more resources than campers these days, but it still needs RSF residents to be an active partner in making sure they are wildfire ready.
There really is no “fire season” anymore — preventing vegetation fires is a year-round responsibility for all property owners in the district, according to the RSF Fire District.
“It’s been six years since the 2007 fires, long enough for us to become complacent,” said Suzanne Johnson of the RSF Garden Club, who dedicated last week’s “Get Fired Up” town meeting to the 19 firefighters who were killed in the Prescott, Ariz. wildfire on June 30.
Conor Lenahan, who has been the fire district’s urban forester since last June, spoke about how to create a defensible home, the little steps that can make a big difference when it counts.
Proper landscaping is a big part of having defensible space. In the first 50 feet from your home, plants should be types that are fire resistant and the area should be well irrigated. The area should also be cleared of dead materials like weeds that can act as lighter fuels in a wildfire.
The fire district recommends mulch be pulled back at least 12 inches from a structure as embers can land and smolder and transport into the wall of a home. The district recommends using pea gravel, river rock, decomposed granite or bare, mineral soil in that 12 inches of space.
In the second zone, 50 to 100 feet from a home, native vegetation may remain but Lenahan said the “fuels” should be thinned by 50 percent or every third plant. Again, it’s important this area is well-irrigated and dead plant material removed.
Residents should also clear their gutters of dead leaves, needles and debris, and prune trees back 10 feet from the roof.
Beware of “ladder fuels”— having dense and taller shrubs that creep all the way into canopies of trees. To avoid creating ladder fuels, Lenahan said to “skirt up trees” by trimming low hanging tree limbs six to 10 feet from the ground level, creating space between shrubs and trees.
One tree that residents should take care to maintain is palm trees. The skirt of dead palm fronds at the top of the tree should be removed as embers can land, spark and ignite the whole tree.
“There’s a common misconception that palm trees are fire resistant and we used to believe that until 2007 came by,” Lenahan said. “They are an ember trap.”
Lenahan said another potentially dangerous tree is Rancho Santa Fe’s signature tree, the eucalyptus, many of which are in declining health. Chief Tony Michel said the tree is a “hard and touchy subject.”
“We were aggressively active with the eucalyptus problem 10 years ago and we got a lot of kickback, that we were taking away the character of Rancho Santa Fe,” Michel said. “We’re at the point now where many of the trees are very stressed and unlikely to come back. It’s an ongoing issue.”
The fire department recommends deep soaking the healthy trees with water and thinning out the smaller, ailing trees to allow an opportunity for stronger trees to flourish. Michel said they are in no way advising clear-cutting eucalyptus trees, they are just advising how to reduce the threat of the diseased and dying trees.
Lenahan said it’s also important to make sure roadways into a home are cleared so it’s easily accessible by emergency vehicles. Thin driveways that only allow one vehicle to pass at a time and dense vegetation around those roadways make for challenging conditions in an emergency.
Emergency vehicles need a vertical clearance of 13 feet by six inches. Address markers should also be in clear view with four-inch high numerals on a contrasting background.
Lenahan said to maintain addresses annually and make sure no numerals are missing or hidden from view.
When planning for evacuation, residents should make sure they have two ways out from their property and try to pick roads with two-way traffic. Make a list of all important items, have a plan for horses and pets, and prepare an emergency supply kit.
RSF Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser said that there are safe, secure websites where people can upload important documents so you don’t have to worry about them when leaving your home.
Wellhouser said when leaving, don’t forget essentials like medications and gathering sentimental items is OK, but it’s most important to get out and ensure you and your family’s safety.
“Stuff is stuff,” Wellhouser said. “Nothing is worth your life so be prepared to leave.”
Lenahan said it’s a good idea to build a network of neighbors to rely on in case of a fire.
“Talking to your neighbors is huge, especially in Rancho Santa Fe where people are really spread out,” Lenahan said.
Neighbors can develop a phone tree to keep each other posted with information during an emergency and building a network will also help identify neighbors who may need assistance, such as the elderly.
If residents have time before evacuating, they should close windows and doors, turn off heating and air conditioning, move furniture and draperies away from windows, and move combustibles away from the exterior of the homes. Residents should also close garage doors and disconnect the electricity to automatic garage door openers. Manual gates should be left open and unlocked, and the motor for automatic gates should be disconnected.
During an evacuation, Lenahan said people should expect to see disorienting heavy smoke, embers in the air, a high volume of cars and some panicked drivers. Chief Michel and Lenahan said the RSF Fire District has learned a lot since the 2003 Cedar and Paradise Fires.
“When we call for an evacuation, we’re going to call early,” Chief Michel said. “If at any time you feel threatened, go. It’s better to leave too early than when it’s too late.”
Early evacuation was something that was useful in 2007 — Michel said they did not have panicked drivers trying to get out during heavy smoke conditions and the seven engines tasked with protecting 6,000 homes did not have to worry about other vehicles on the road.
If for some reason residents cannot escape in time, Lenahan recommends staying in homes or vehicles.
“Don’t attempt to outrun a wildfire,” Lenahan said.
He said fire fronts can take five to 15 minutes to pass and people should stay calm and stay together.
RSF Fire will complete fire inspections of homes and properties to ensure they are fire ready. Make an appointment by visiting rsf-fire.org or calling (858) 756-5971.
To register for Alert San Diego’s reverse 9-1-1 system, visit readysandiego.org/alertsandiego.