By Simone M. Scully weather.com
“We knew the weather was bad,” remembers Kevin Crawford. Although he has now retired after 13 years in the fire service, Crawford was the Carlsbad Fire Chief and the area fire coordinator at that time, a position that activates whenever there is a large-scale emergency like a firestorm.
“We were very much on the balls of our feet and we knew [a fire] was probably coming.” he continues. “Whenever Santa Ana conditions are present, we increase our staffing, we curtail outside activities and we do lots of things to keep people on [their] toes.”
On the morning of October 21, an unauthorized campfire ignited brush, starting the Harris fire near the town of Potrero just north of the US-Mexico border, and power lines whipped by Santa Ana winds started the Witch Creek fire.
“We weren’t caught off-guard," Crawford says. “As soon as it lit, we knew it was going to be big.”
By the next day, the fire had spread to the San Diego city limits, and another fire — the Guejito Fire in the San Pasqual Valley — had started.
Before long, the spreading Witch Creek and the Guejito fires merged.
At the height of the firestorm, there were seven separate fires burning in San Diego county.
By the time the fires were over, 369,000 acres had burned — an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. 500,000 people ended up evacuating their homes during the firestorm, Crawford says, which, as the area coordinator, he oversaw.
“These fires are so massive and they outpace resources so significantly that you really have to be creative as to not only how you’re going to put the fire out, but how you are going to keep people safe,” he says.
While the 2007 fires were not the most costly in terms of lives lost or acres burned, they were a strong reminder that wildfires can get very close to cities. Wildfires aren’t just confined to remote backcountry regions, especially in California.
“California gets a large number of wildfires each year, in part because of its distinct wet and dry seasons and its geography,” explains Jonathan Belles, digital meteorologist for weather.com. “Unlike much of the United States, where rain falls even during drier months, rainfall completely shuts off in parts of California during part of the year.”
“Combine heat and a lack of rainfall, and you get dried out soils with plenty of vegetation to feed on.”
In addition, more and more communities are expanding into wildlands and open space. Firefighters call this the wildland-urban interface (WUI)— a vulnerable area where homes are built near open space, natural vegetation, or forests that are flammable. According to a 2018 study, one in three homes are now in the WUI.
Climate change is also raising the risk of wildfire, Belles explains, by raising temperatures year-round and changing when the seasons begin and end. “With wildfires, there is also a feedback loop that happens when trees burn and release more carbon,” he says. “Some of that carbon is released into the atmosphere and creates opportunities for additional carbon dioxide creation, which further amplifies climate change. The risk continues to increase.”
As wildfires become more common, though, residents are becoming more prepared. “Because we’ve had so many of them over the last 30 years, people have become conditioned — particularly in southern California,” says Crawford.
This was something Crawford had already started to see following the 2003 wildland fires in San Diego — also known as the Cedar Fire. He was Carlsbad fire chief during these fires too.
The Cedar Fire killed 15 people, destroyed 2,800 buildings, caused 113 injuries and burned 280,278 acres. It caused an estimated $204 million in damage. In fact, the Cedar Fire was the single largest wildland fire in California history.
“We learned a lot from 2003 that informed 2007,” Crawford says. “While the nuts and bolts of putting out wildland fires hasn’t really changed all that much,” he says, “managing them and communication has.”
In particular, he says, communication to residents about where the fire is going and where it is anticipated is one of the things that has gotten better — which is why they evacuated so many more people during the 2007 fires than the 2003.
But improvements haven’t stopped there. “Something that has come out of the 2007 firestorms is that you can now get your cell phone registered with the authorities to get updated information right to your phone,” Crawford explains. “It’s kind of like an amber alert, but it alerts you to road closures, evacuation notices, and so forth.”
“I strongly encourage everyone [in fire-prone areas] to get their cellphones registered so they can get up-to-date information.”
Fire dispatchers across the county have also adopted a uniform communication system to improve communication among backcountry fire departments, and new equipment — including helicopters — have been bought. Over 100 new weather stations have also been installed in the backcountry to help track the speed, direction and intensity of fires in real time.
Crawford has also seen an improvement in fire-proofing in new construction. In Rancho Santa Fe, for example, new building codes were embraced over 20 years ago that required protective measures for homes, such as noncombustible roofs, noncombustible siding, fire sprinklers and double-pane windows. These measures have been shown to work: in 2007, when the Witch Fire spread into Rancho Santa Fe, no newly constructed buildings built to adhere to these codes burned in the town, while about 50 older buildings did.
Since those 2007 fires, California has instituted similar building codes for all new homes built in fire-prone zones.
Improvements have also been made to the protective resources available to homeowners. “For example,” he says, “residents can have their own foam, and they can have a pump that they throw in their pool so that they can foam their homes. This is just like how we’d foam a house in preparation for an oncoming fire, except they can now do it themselves.”
Still, the best way to keep residents safe in fire-prone areas is education: You have to change how people think about fire so that they can protect themselves.
In Rancho Santa Fe, for example, street parking isn’t allowed in front of homes in some neighborhoods with narrow roads because it could block fire trucks.
The fire district also has strict regulations about weeds and brush: Homeowners in high-risk fire zones must maintain a “defensible space” around their homes by managing all vegetation within 100 feet. Some regions also don’t allow flammable trees, such as palm, pine or cypress trees, within 30 feet of houses.
“Plant succulents out there instead,” Crawford says. “Not something that is dry and will easily ignite.”
Mulch is also flammable so some communities prevent homeowners from using it within 12-inches to 5 feet of their home.
So what should you do to protect yourself if you live in a wildfire-prone region?
There is no way to be 100% “fire-safe” but there are some things you can do to help protect yourself:
1. “Contact your local fire department and get their list of do’s and don’ts,” Crawford says, “especially if you live in a wildland urban interface — if you live on a ridge or way out in the backcountry.”
2. Know what kind of roofing your house has and change it if you need to. This can help prevent your house from catching fire from stray embers.
3. Maintain a defensible space around your home and keep combustibles well away from the side of your house.
4. Be ready for an emergency. “We always encourage people to have 72 hours of water and food in case they need to shelter-in-place,” Crawford says. “But in case you have to move, make sure you have all your important belongings easily accessible.”
5. Back your car into the garage or park it outside in the direction of an evacuation route.
6. If you have pets, confine them into one room overnight so you can find them quickly if you need to evacuate.
7. Have a rendezvous location for your family in case you’re separated in an emergency so you can find each other even if cell service is down.
8. Pay close attention to the news, especially if weather conditions are primed for a fire to break out.
9. If you evacuate, do not return home after a wildfire until officials say it is safe to do so.