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Preparation for wildfire in Rancho Santa Fe is imperative, officials warn at community meeting

Well-maintained defensible space helped firefighters save these homes during the Bernardo Fire.
Well-maintained defensible space helped firefighters save these homes during the Bernardo Fire.

By Karen Billing

Local firefighters are warning that the next big wildfire to threaten the Rancho Santa Fe community is not a matter of if but when. To ensure that all residents are prepared for this year’s fire season, which unexpectedly kicked off early this year in May, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District held a community readiness meeting on July 8.

“The fuel moisture levels we’re seeing are unprecedented,” Deputy Chief Mike Gibbs said.

Sixty percent fuel moisture is considered critical and the district was below 60 percent about two-and-a-half months ago when typically those levels are seen more in September and October.

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The drought plays a big role in those moisture levels and Gibbs said depending on whose research you believe, the drought has been ongoing for eight to 10 years. Gibbs said this is the first time in 100 years that most of the state is considered in extreme or severe drought conditions.

Adding to the risk of an increased fuel load for wildfire is the weather conditions. Gibbs said the April and May Santa Ana winds broke the highest-ever wind speeds for the county. Hot weather, big winds and dry brush make for a dangerous combination.

“We’re seeing more fires developing faster and rapidly,” Gibbs said. “I’m anticipating a fire season that’s very long, I don’t see a pause.”

Evacuation tips

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Renee Hill, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District’s new fire marshal, led the discussion on how community residents can ready themselves in advance of the next fire incident.

Hill said a good first step is to register with Ready San Diego’s reverse 911 system at readysandiego.org to be notified of evacuations via cell phone. Landlines are already registered. Make sure to use your home address and not your P.O. Box.

Prepare a disaster kit with a three- to seven-day supply of water and nonperishable food (don’t forget the can opener), flashlight with extra batteries, blankets, clothing for about three days, a first aid kit, medications, supplies for pets and important documents. Make note of the location of sentimental items that are irreplaceable so they can be easily grabbed when evacuating.

Identify and become familiar with at least two ways out of your neighborhood to evacuate in the direction away from the fire:

• La Granada into Encinitas

• El Camino Del Norte into Encinitas

• Linea Del Cielo into Solana Beach

• Via de la Valle into Del Mar

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• Del Dios Highway into Escondido

Before evacuating, close all windows and doors, shut off air conditioning and heating units, close fireplace doors and move combustibles such as patio furniture away from the exterior of the home. Disengage automatic garage doors before closing them, leave automatic gates in the open position and leave manual gates open and unlocked.

“Evacuate as early as possible,” Hill said. “We don’t want you on the road in smoky, unsafe conditions.”

Information on evacuations and road closures can be found on social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook:

•Rancho Santa Fe Fire: @RSF_Fire on Twitter, facebook.com/RSFFire

•San Diego County: sdcountyemergency.com, @SanDiegoCounty on Twitter, facebook.com/sandiegocounty. The SD Emergency app is available for free in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.

•Calfire: @CALFIRESANDIEGO on Twitter

•RSF Patrol: rsfpatrol.blogspot.com

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Evacuation of large animals, such as horses, is also a big concern in Rancho Santa Fe and Hill said the key is planning in advance as much as possible and getting them out early.

One resident said it was very difficult finding a place to take horses during the Bernardo Fire — many places were not ready to take horses in during the evacuation.

Lt. Jason Rothlein of the Encinitas Sheriffs Department said the Bernardo Fire was a very unique situation in that all of the typical evacuation centers were not available: There was a horse show in Del Mar, a rodeo at Pala and an event at Lakeside.

He said county emergency services pre-designates spaces for large animal evacuations and if that situation happens again where centers are not ready or open then people should contact the sheriff’s department.

Once evacuated, one resident had concerns about the safety of the neighborhood and its homes. Captain Theresa Adams-Hydar of the Encinitas Sheriff’s Department said once the evacuation is complete they shut down the roads and stop any car trying to get back in the area. The Sheriff’s Department deploy a squad to patrol for suspicious activity such as looters or “fire bugs” looking to start another fire.

“We’re always there, 24-7,” Adams-Hydar said. “There are opportunists and we know that.”

She added that during the Bernardo, Cocos and Carlsbad fires there were not any reported incidents of home burglaries. Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser said there was one burglary on a construction site on Zumaque in which tools were taken.

Adams-Hydar said the community is fortunate because this is one of the best coordinated law enforcement groups in California that works closely in partnership with the fire department.

“This command is very locked-on. We coordinate, practice and train all of the time,” Adams-Hydar said.

Hill said that in the event that you are unable to evacuate, you should remain calm and prepare your home. Call an out-of-town relative or friend to notify them of the situation. Hill said to make sure to give them your street address as many may only know the P.O. Box address. Call 911 if assistance is needed with nonambulatory residents.

The importance of defensible space

Maintaining at least 100 feet of defensible space around all structures increases the chance of homes surviving the threat of wildfire, said Conor Lenehan, the fire district’s urban forester.

“In the Bernardo Fire we did not lose a home and I was shocked,” Gibbs said. “Defensible space had a direct impact. A lot was what homeowners did to protect their homes.”

The first 50 feet around the home should be well irrigated and planted with fire resistive material such as succulents.

“We’re very fond of succulents in Rancho Santa Fe. They retain a lot of water and it takes a lot of heat for those things to burn,” Lenehan said.

The fire district has a landscaping guide available and the district can send someone out for an onsite meeting to discuss how to make your property more fire safe.

Lenehan said trees such as eucalyptus, pepper, juniper and acacias have a higher flame rate and should be set farther away from structures, preferably 30 feet.

Mulch should be kept at least 12 inches away from a structure. Lenehan said they’ve seen even stucco homes burn because the mulch is directly against the side of the house. He recommends pea gravel, decomposed granite or another non-combustible material within that first 12 inches.

Keep trees trimmed 10 feet clear of the rooftop as Lenehan said dense tees overhanging a rooftop can drop leaf litter onto roofs or gutters that even the tiniest embers can land and potentially ignite. It’s important to clean gutters as well as trimming the trees.

Lenehan said that trees should also be trimmed 6 to 10 feet from the ground level, to avoid acting as “ladder fuel.”

Remove any dead and dying vegetation and stack firewood in neat stacks 20 to 30 feet from the home.

In the second 50 feet from your home, Lenehan said vegetation should be thinned by 50 percent; this includes having good road clearance on driveways. If people have orchards or groves, Lenehan said to use bare mineral soil within the groves and recommends a 10-foot fire break free of combustible materials between the grove and any structure.

“I can’t tell you how critical that is for us to do our job,” Gibbs said of all the defensible space precautions. “With large fires, we don’t have an engine at every house so whatever you can do to make your home stand alone it’s to your benefit.”

Should I stay and use my garden hose to fight fires?

Residents at the meeting had several questions about extra steps they can take to protect their homes.

One resident asked about purchasing a pump to use water from their backyard swimming pool to fight an approaching fire

“We’d rather you not do that because we don’t want you in harm’s way, but it is your home and you have the right to defend it,” Gibbs said. “We prefer you to not go that route but do all the things fire prevention is telling you to do, plan in advance and leave.”

Another resident asked about using garden hoses and Gibbs said that the amount of water that the hoses put out is not going to help that much and will likely evaporate in the heat.

Gibbs said there are firefighting gels that are effective that homeowners can apply to structures and landscaping. The gels retain water, act as insulation from a fire and depending on the product, can remain hydrated and effective for over six hours.

Gibbs said many times they find homeowners have the gels but don’t have time to apply it; they leave it in front of their homes for the fire department to use (the fire department does carry its own gel).

Barricade or FireIce are two brands Gibbs recommended, noting all brands can be found by searching firefighting gel on the Internet.  Some insurance agencies will provide gel application as part of a policy, but Chief Michel said companies will only enter a fire area if it is safe; there might not always be time for them to do so.

The safety of propane tanks in a fire was also questioned. Gibbs said they are not that big of a concern as they are designed to withstand a lot of heat and to self-vent but, to be safe, homeowners can make sure that vegetation surrounding the tanks is cleared.

Reducing the threat of the Ranch’s signature tree: Eucalyptus

Residents had many concerns about dead and dying eucalyptus trees around the Covenant — they have seen them along the Ranch roadways and on Association-owned open space property such as the Arroyo (88 acres off of El Vuelo) and Ewing Preserve (a 20-acre parcel off Linea del Cielo). One resident asked what to do about a neighboring property that has been sold three times in the last five years with vegetation that is a danger and needs to be cleared.

Lenehan said this year the fire district has been very proactive about sending notices to residents about infected eucalyptus trees that are defoliating and unlikely to return to health.

“We’ve been working on this situation for the last 10 to 15 years…it’s been a struggle,” said Hill. “We know that (the infected trees) are not coming back and we know they’re not going to be healthy. We don’t want to clear-cut but if we can reduce the trees by 50 percent that would help and, additionally, the dense underbrush underneath. We’re trying to reduce as much as we can as soon as we can.”

“The Ewing preserve is a concern,” Hill said. “We’re looking for cost-effective ways to help mitigate that area and get the eucalyptus trees thinned out…We are seeing progress.”

Arnold Keene, Association field manager, said that the Association has been doing a lot of work clearing trees at the open space properties and also said a priority has been placed along evacuation routes. He said crews recently removed at least 30 to 40 trees at the Arroyo property.


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