Rancho Santa Fe fire chief credits personnel, prevention efforts in containment of Bernardo Fire


By Kristina Houck

Although a wildfire burned nearly 1,600 acres between Rancho Peñasquitos and Rancho Santa Fe last week, no homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Tony Michel credits firefighters and personnel, as well as Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District’s prevention efforts, for being able to successfully contain the Bernardo Fire.

“We were very, very fortunate that we did not lose any homes,” said Michel. “It was very great to see that homeowners who were directly impacted did manage their vegetation and maintain their defensive space. That helped a lot. The heroic efforts of the firefighters, and all personnel, cannot be overlooked as well.”

The Bernardo Fire was the first of nearly a dozen wind-whipped fires that burned about 27,000 acres across San Diego County beginning May 13. The Bernardo Fire broke out just before 11 a.m. off Nighthawk Lane in 4S Ranch amid hot, dry and gusty conditions and was pushed north and west by strong Santa Ana winds, reaching 1,548 acres before it was 100 percent contained late May 17.

About 5,000 homes were evacuated during the fire, which Michel said destroyed an outbuilding in the Fairbanks Ranch area. Investigators later determined a backhoe in use at a housing construction project near Rancho Bernardo sparked the fire.

“Right now, I cannot confirm that there was no other damage to any portions of the house,” said Michel early May 19. “I know there were no homes destroyed in the fire. There might have been some cosmetic and/or impingement on some homes. I heard one home had a small fire on a roof and got overhauled, so there probably was some damage, but minor damage. There was no major damage to any residences.”

The Witch Creek Fire, which was the largest of the October 2007 wildfires in San Diego County, started in Witch Creek Canyon near Santa Ysabel and quickly spread to San Diego Country Estates, Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Poway and Escondido, before jumping over Interstate 15 and causing significant damage in Lake Hodges, Del Dios and Rancho Santa Fe.

Two people died and 41 were injured in the fire, which destroyed 197,990 acres, 1,040 homes, 414 outbuildings and 239 vehicles, and damaged 70 homes and 25 outbuildings. The fire surpassed the 1970 Laguna Fire as the second-largest fire in California history.

Although Michel said firefighters “saw some of the same fire behavior” in the Bernardo Fire, they were more prepared and better equipped.

“We had a fair amount of resources,” Michel said. “We had the first fire, so the resources were committed to our fire first. In the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, we had very limited resources available to us when the fire came into our fire district.”

In an effort to protect lives and property, the district also actively maintains its fire prevention program.

Every year, the district reminds property owners about local hazard abatement requirements. On April 11, the district sent about 6,000 letters, reminding residents they are responsible for reducing the fire risk around their homes.

Beginning May 20 and through the beginning of November, a fire prevention specialist will survey the district and look for hazards, said Rancho Santa Fe Deputy Fire Marshal Renee Hill. Properties with violations will receive an official notice to abate hazards. If a property owner doesn’t comply after receiving three notices, the district sends a contractor to address the issue, which is billed to the owner, Hill added.

“We are in a prolonged drought in California,” Michel said. “When you have prolonged drought, fuels become drier and drier. Our fuel moistures are already at critical levels right now, and we usually don’t see that until the end of summer. So we’re letting people know that this fire season is going to be a fire season that we should be preparing for. It’s really dry. We’ve had many devastating fires early on in the season, which we usually don’t get until July, August, September and October.

“Prep your houses. Defensible space is one of the leading contributors to making sure that we can safely protect homes.”

Property owners are asked to meet the following requirements: create and maintain 100 feet of defensible space around all structures; provide a vertical clearance of 13-feet-6-inches along all roadways, driveways and easements; provide 20 feet of fuel modification along both sides of all roadways and driveways; eliminate dead and/or dying trees and brush; maintain all dead or cured weeds/grasses so that it does not exceed 6 inches in height; and post the county assigned address so that it is visible from the street and from both directions of approach.

For more information about the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, and how to prepare for and prevent wildfires, visit