Rancho Santa Fe chief says lessons from Witch Creek blaze make fire season safer


By Joe Tash


Friday, Oct. 21, marks the fourth anniversary of the 2007 Witch Creek fire, which caused the evacuation of 23,000 people from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, destroyed 61 homes in the district and damaged 23 more.

Lessons learned from that blaze — which charred nearly 200,000 acres in San Diego County and destroyed more than 1,000 homes — will help make this fall’s fire season safer for district residents, said Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Tony Michel.

Within the district, the fire, which began in East San Diego County, burned some 6,000 acres, said Michel. The district’s four fire stations serve a 38-square-mile territory, which includes Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch, 4S Ranch, The Crosby, Cielo and other communities.

“The biggest thing we all learned, the community learned they can be affected by wildfire,” said Michel. “It became a reality that a fire can start in East County and within a day be at our doorstep.”

Since that massive blaze, the district has taken a number of steps to improve fire safety, from improving its communications and organizational abilities, to adding new provisions to its fire safety codes for homeowners.

For example, the district has outfitted one of its training rooms as a departmental operations center for use during big emergencies such as the Witch Creek Fire, said Michel. Through radios, computers and other communications equipment, district personnel can keep in close touch with other fire departments and the county of San Diego’s Emergency Operations Center.

The district has also improved its abilities to pinpoint reverse 9-1-1 calls in case evacuations are needed for specific areas, and to provide outgoing messages to residents.

Other lessons came from the behavior of the fire.

“We learned that dead palm fronds are like Frisbees in wind, they fly for miles and they can start other fires,” Michel said. In response, the district has added new requirements for homeowners to trim and maintain palm trees.

Because of observations that mulch used as ground cover caught fire during the wildfires, homeowners are now required to keep mulch at least a foot from their homes.

The district also works to enforce longstanding requirements to keep vegetation trimmed and managed at least 100 feet from homes.

While wildfires can strike at any time of year, Michel said the fall, when hot, dry Santa Ana winds occur, can be a particularly dangerous time.

Meteorologists have predicted two moderate “wind events” for this fall in Southern California, said Michel, and fire authorities, including Rancho Santa Fe fire officials, monitor weather forecasts on a daily basis.

Over the spring and summer, the district works to enforce brush-clearing and weed-abatement rules, along with updating training and conducting drills for firefighters, Michel said.

Now the district is trying to keep up with weather trends and forecasts to prepare for high winds that could spread wildfires. One worry is that because of last winter’s higher than average rainfall, wild grass grew taller, which becomes a potential fire hazard once it dries out.

If fire officials learn that severe wind is forecast, extra crews can be put on standby or called to duty, Michel said.

“The fire district will continue to strive to meet its goal of having a fire-safe community,” said Michel.