Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief emphasizes need for community to be prepared for fire season


By Karen Billing

Rancho Santa Fe had a close call last month as the Bernardo Fire threatened the community, but fortunately its flames did not reach any homes. With the images of smoke-filled skies and fire-ravaged canyons fresh in everyone’s minds, Rancho Santa Fe Fire District Chief Tony Michel said he wants to take advantage of the community’s hyper-awareness to make sure everyone is fully prepared for fire season. Michel stopped by the Rancho Santa Fe Association’s June 5 board meeting with some district staff to share an update about the fire and fire prevention efforts.

“We want to be diligent that we stay fire safe throughout the fire season,” Michel said. “I don’t believe that just because we had a fire, we’re safer.”

Michel said the fire was a direct result of a prolonged drought in Southern California, enhanced by the unseasonably strong Santa Ana winds and “unprecedented” amounts of dry fuels in the area.

“The fuel moisture is at critical levels,” Michel said, stating that the 60 percent moisture level is not usually seen until August of September and the district has been observing that level in the area since February. “(The fuel levels) are just perpetrating the fire season. For all intent and purposes we should have lost homes but we didn’t. Defensible space is paying off and it shows. Kudos to the people who have done what they need to do around their houses.”

The Bernardo Fire was ignited by accident at a construction site on May 13 just before noon, south of Del Norte High School, the south end of 4S Ranch. Deputy Chief Mike Gibbs said the fire started in light grass and was aided in its spread by winds of 25 miles per hour, gusting up to 40 miles per hour. The fire on the mesa top unfortunately progressed into the east-west drainage area and caught the full force of the Santa Anas and took off, eventually reaching the Lusardi Creek area that funnels into Zumaque.

Gibbs said fire crews thought they would be able to capture the fire at a choke point at the Camino Del Sur main bridge but they were unsuccessful.

“We dumped everything on that, we had hand crews and helicopters,” Michel said. “But little embers that flew in seconds were quarter-acre fires.”

Once the fire burned into Lusardi canyon, it came into the footprint of the 2007 fire. Michel said there hasn’t been a lot of recovery since 2007 so the fuel loads and intensity of the fire was not the same. Another “saving grace” was that when it got to that point, around 5 p.m., there had been a reversal in the winds.

Michel said a lot of their success in fighting the fire could be attributed to the fact it was the first to start and they got the majority of resources with aircraft and personnel on the ground. He said later fires were hindered by not having the resources available that they did.

Michel said it’s going to take a long rainy season to get fuel moisture levels up so it’s important that the district maintains its good partnership with the community, educating people about defensible space and staying fire safe.

Renee Hill, deputy fire marshal, said rather than staying and defending your home, it’s more important to harden your structure by taking steps such as replacing roofs; making sure roofs and gutters are clean; using ember-resistant vents; and reviewing your landscaping and mulch. Hill said those steps could ensure that if a firefighter is not there and there are little spot fires near your home, it will protect itself.

“Efforts we put in before the fire comes are more important than boots on the ground,” Michel said.

Hill said they have placed a focus on dead and dying eucalyptus trees on evacuation routes within Rancho Santa Fe, not looking to clear-cut, just to reduce the threat and hazard.

RSF Association Director Rochelle Putnam noted that an Association trails and recreation committee has been working with the fire district to put together a special equestrian evacuation plan.

She said during the fire, it took her two and a half hours to move two horses to the Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation center as traffic was backed up all the way down Via de la Valle to Mary’s Tack and Feed.

Putnam said she hopes they can coordinate a smoother plan for the unique needs of equestrian facilities for future emergencies. Michel agreed and said when in doubt, people evacuating horses should start earlier as it takes longer.

For more tips on fire safety, such as a plant and landscape guide, visit Register your cell phone for reverse 911 at

Ready your home for fire threats

• In the first 50 feet from your home, plants should be types that are fire resistant and the area should be well irrigated and cleared of dead materials such as 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. They recommend 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 your home, native vegetation may remain but fuels should be thinned by 50 percent or every third plant. Keep areas well irrigated and dead plant material removed.

• Clear gutters and prune trees back 10 feet from the roof.

• Beware of “ladder fuels”— dense and taller shrubs that creep all the way into canopies of trees. Trim low hanging tree limbs 6 to 10 feet from the ground level, creating space between shrubs and trees. The skirt of dead palm fronds at the top of palm trees should be removed as embers can land, spark and ignite the whole tree.

• Make sure home address markers are in clear view with 4-inch-high numerals on a contrasting background. Maintain addresses annually and make sure no numerals are missing or hidden from view.