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What Does It Take To Defend Your Home Against A Mega Wildfire Like The Camp Fire? Here’s How One Couple Survived

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December 11, 2018 1:23 p.m.

What Does It Take To Defend Your Home Against A Mega Wildfire Like The Camp Fire? Here’s How One Couple Survived


Richard Halsey, director, California Chaparral Institute

Related Story: What Does It Take To Defend Your Home Against A Mega Wildfire Like The Camp Fire? Here’s How One Couple Survived


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Jade Hindmon.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Even though large wildfires have become common in California. They are still taking many by surprise and they are often deadly like the campfire that killed 85 people. But as capital public radio's Ezra David Romero reports some people didn't evacuate and survived.

As the camp fire raged towards Kathy and Doug Houston's property on a ridge south of Paradise it began dousing their two storey house.

Embers landed in trees like Little Rock and they drenched them with hoses connect the pumps that cold water from there this fight lasted for more than 12 hours.

It was really emotional because I would say about every two minutes I hear an explosion.

Dugin Kaththi was prepared for two decades. They actively cleared their property of anything flammable. The couple spent thousands on mowing equipment water pumps and industrial hoses. They even bought 45 acres north of their home as a buffer for added safety.

We knew when we moved out here this would be our responsibility to protect ourselves to protect our home.

It was the best refinance we ever did to buy land next to us.

This is fire prep to the extreme and it worked. But as expensive and time consuming. That's perhaps one reason why so many residents didn't do the same. Cal Fire Chief Amy had recently flew over paradise and says she could tell who was ready on after home after home was gone. It was pretty evident that there wasn't a lot of space around these homes to be able to survive a wildfire she says preparations begin by creating defensible space that's clearing at least 100 feet around a home of things that can burn. This includes making sure neighbors do the same in upgrading things like roofs vents and windows so embers can't get in.

This even means not having decorative plants or chairs within five feet of a home. Earlier this year UC system force adviser Jaana Avella Covic toured the car fire burn area in readiness.

What surprised me there was how many of the stucco homes were lost and they were surrounded by green lawn. What the mechanism of injury was is that they had a ring of vegetation right around the outside of their house.

Susie Coker often visits the Angora fire burn site that blaze more than a decade ago destroyed about 250 homes in Lake Tahoe.

There are still a lot of flammable plants planted right under picture windows. People have set themselves up for future fires perhaps in the mistaken belief that they're kind of safe now because there's no big trees. She's a forest adviser with a UC system and says if you can't evacuate the best place to be is inside your home or an open area like a ball field she reiterates this is a last resort. Ole Miss.

Isn't just important for people who live in the woods. The same day the camp fire broke out. A brush fire ignited near UC Davis. Nathan Browarnik is the fire chief there.

They experienced the same effects of a wind driven fire that we're seeing up there 40 mile per hour wind gusts drove the fire over a roadway into dry vegetation.

If it wasn't for a field of dirt blocking the fire a whole department on campus could have burned.

If you are watching the news and they're talking about a fire near your area you really need to stop what you're doing and figure out if it's serious enough for you to take action you back in the Paradise area.

Doug and Kathy are taking care of their neighbors pets after watching homes burn. They're left with survivor's guilt.

I have my house. It's still gut wrenching to see your town gone and to hear so many people leaving.

And even though her house is standing she says there is reason enough to cry.

In Sacramento Mezer David Romero joining me now is Richard Hall's a director of the California Chaparral Institute. With more on sheltering in place and Rick welcome to the program. Welcome Marie. The couple we just heard about they've spent thousands of dollars clearing their property and spent money on water pumps. Fire equipment they even bought more property as a safety buffer. What do you think though was the most essential aspect of their shelter in place plan.

People. First of all I have to realize it's important to connect with the environment that you live in and figure out how to live with it safely. So what they did was exactly what you would want to do in fire country if you're in a position that you know is going to cause you problems when a wildfire comes your way.

And there they had to stay there though in order to save their home because it wouldn't have survived if the family hadn't stayed behind to protect it is that right.

Well exactly. And this happens time and time again because unlike what most people think and you often hear reports like this. Homes don't explode in a wildfire. They don't get overwhelmed by a wall of flame. Typically homes ignite with tiny itty bitty little ember caused ignitions so it could be a little fire in the corner where there are some pine needles or some leaves in the gutter or the attic gets impacted by embers through the vents.

And basically if you're there at the time you can put it out with a couple of water or stomp on it and these little ember fires are the things that take out homes so if you're prepared and if you've been trained by somebody who understands the terror that fire can it can cause a person's heart and mind then under those situations it's a reasonable response.

Tell us more about that. What have we discovered actually works to save homes from wildfire.

It's all about embers Embers embers and I can't stress this more. So you see a lot of these pictures especially in the recent fire up in Northern California the camp campfire around the town of Paradise. I mean the winds blowing and you can see in some of these videos that these embers are just screaming across the little roads and hammering little areas that you wouldn't think to look at except when the embers are flying. They exploit the weakest link in a house and so you want to prevent your home from igniting because these fires.

It's not a fire control issue because fires are going to come regardless of what we do. It's a home ignition issue and this is something Dr. Jack Cohen who was the lead fire scientist in the U.S. Forest Service discovered and has been trying to help fire agencies understand and respond to over the last 20 to 30 years. Unfortunately it just seems like we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. And so we're talking ember resistant vents to keep embers from out of the house. You make sure you have non-flammable surfaces in as many areas as possible exterior sprinklers are an option for a lot of people because they're basically designed on the concept that wet homes are not going to ignite.

And then you want to have a retreat or a safety area that you go to that has enough defensible space so in case things go sideways you can go in and save yourself in some communities like for example there's a really wonderful development in Escondido called Eureka Springs. And they have a big park right in the center of the development which is surrounded by wild land. And in case something happens that's where everybody can go and whether that's the purpose of the park or that's what everybody understands that I'm not sure but it's a wonderful way to create a development within a fire prone area.

I want to go back to what you said about the effort to control wildfires. You know just recently President Trump got a lot of criticism for his assertion that our wildfires were caused by not raking our forest floor is enough. But as far as you're concerned California's efforts to control wildfires is equally misguided. Tell us why that is.

Well it's just not working. We've lost so many homes and families so many families have been impacted. We've got to go back to the drawing board and figure what we're doing wrong because this myopic focus on trying to manage the landscape in a way that can protect our communities is signaling that that strategy is not working.

And the reason is that because homes burned because they're flammable and there's no new building codes that try to address that.

But for the most part there's so many communities older communities that are very flammable and if we would just spend like a third or a quarter of the money we spent on fire suppression and instead go and retrofit communities give people the embryo this invent they're pretty inexpensive. We would reduce losses significantly but we just keep going back to the same thing because it's intuitive you know you think well let's just get rid of the fuel otherwise known as Habitat and we're not going to have fires but that just doesn't work because it doesn't matter what these trees shrubs or dry grass you're still going to get the fires.

Now the idea of sheltering in place is really completely opposite to the mass evacuations that fire agencies have promoted in recent years. Why are fire officials now changing their minds sometimes about sheltering.

Well it's a liability issue and they tell people the shelter in place you're making some assumptions about human behavior which sometimes aren't exactly the best way to go and yet you know you get situations like you had up in Paradise were they saved 150 lives by Shelter in placing it in a big parking lot. It was the only place to be. I think we really have to look at that approach because these fires they move so fast and the emergency systems at the moment they're just not capable of dealing with that kind of speed and that kind of volume of population on the roads so people get gridlocked and they basically are put at risk because they're doing what they're being told what to do which is evacuating.

So we've got to really examine that that process and look at every single community and plan these communities and our evacuation strategies not 95 percent tile fires that don't kill people which is what they generally are addressing. We've got to look at the 5 percent fires because those are the ones that kill people and destroy communities. And it doesn't matter whether all these fuel treatments work and in the majority of fires because those fires are the most potent and threatening it's the ones we can't control that act so quickly that we need to plan for.

I've been speaking with Richard Halsey director of the California Chaparral Institute. And Rick, thank you so much. Sure.