Survive and thrive
July/Aug. 2008 California Country magazine
By Kate Campbell
Longtime California residents like the Walerys know from experience how dangerous and destructive wildfires can be.
Protecting lives and property in wildfire country
The Walerys, from left, Robyn, Ken and Nancy, stand in the fire-ravaged ruins of their Escondido neighborhood.
Nancy and Ken Walery watched nervously last October as Santa Ana winds--sometimes topping 100 miles per hour--howled across Southern California. They scanned the eastern horizon from their hillside home above the city of Escondido in San Diego County looking for smoke.
Longtime California residents like the Walerys know from experience how dangerous and destructive wildfires can be. They also know that being prepared for disaster is an essential part of living in the urban/rural interface.
What they didn't know at the time, however, was that even though they did the right things to protect their property, they'd be homeless in less than 48 hours.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, the Witch Fire blew up near the rural community of Ramona, more than 30 miles away. It took nearly two days for the fire to burn a swath of destruction across San Diego County to the Walerys' doorstep. When it got there on Tuesday, Oct. 23, it roared up a ravine on Bernardo Mountain and burned their home to the ground.
The Witch Fire destroyed 20 of the 120 residences in the Walerys' neighborhood, along with about 1,650 other structures in the county as it scorched 200,000 acres.
But this wasn't the only fire threatening Southern Californians at the time--nearly two dozen other wildfires also raged in nine counties. In all, more than 520,000 acres were torched between Oct. 21 and Nov. 9, when all fires were contained.
Insurance risk experts say California's 2007 wildfire season was one of the costliest in state history. More than $1.8 billion was spent on firefighting costs and another $2.5 billion in insured property went up in smoke.
The Walerys said there's no way to put a value on personal losses--wedding photos, children's trophies, family heirlooms--not to mention peace of mind.
"We were already packing at 4 a.m. on Monday (Oct. 22) when the evacuation call came through reverse 9-1-1," Nancy Walery said. "I'd turned on the TV, which was carrying live coverage, and saw that flames had jumped the eight lanes of I-15 and were burning on my side of the freeway. I didn't need anyone to tell me it was time to start packing."
Walery, who works as a freelance writer and editor for the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said she decided to let her 16-year-old daughter, Robyn, sleep. She went into her home office and started packing critical files.
She gathered boxes and loaded them with family photos and keepsakes. Walery and her husband pulled out the safe they used to store important documents and valuables. They started loading the car. She wavered in front of her closet trying to decide what she'd need to wear.
"The evacuation list I'd compiled years earlier, and the periodic dry runs we'd practiced, helped me get focused and organized," she said. "I had to make split-second decisions about what to take, what to leave behind. My brain was functioning, but at such a weird pace.
"When I woke Robyn, I told her the good news: She wouldn't have to go to school that day. The bad news: We were evacuating. I told her to bring enough clothes to last three or four days, that we'd be back.
"Besides leaving most of her clothes, we didn't take her soccer trophies and plaques, all the special things she'd collected over her lifetime," Walery said.
Sitting months later in the dining room of a house the family rented in a nearby neighborhood and furnished with donations, Walery said it was shocking to see her home of 14 years reduced to 2 feet of ash and debris.
"The smell of burnt house is awful," she said. "It's toxic and it stays in your nose. We wore breathing masks and sifted through the rubble to see what we could salvage. We had friends come and help. What we found were broken pieces of our life. There wasn't much left but we salvaged what we could."
Before the fire, the Walerys and many of their neighbors did many of the right things to protect their homes. They cleared vegetation for 100 feet around their homes and included fire-retardant plants in their landscaping. They joined a neighborhood Fire Safe Council and planned for evacuation.
But like many families living in the urban/rural interface area, the Walerys' biggest neighbor was Mother Nature, flush with bushes and brush. Experts say there are no guarantees that a home will be fireproof.
But, they all agree that taking steps to be fire safe greatly increases the chance that homes will survive a wildfire.
"Fuel breaks and clearance around homes are essential, but they will never solve the entire fire problem," said Tom Bonnicksen, a noted forest science expert and advisor to the California Forest Foundation. "Once fires crown and race across treetops, they can reach extreme temperatures. Nothing short of a thinned forest or favorable weather conditions will bring them under control.
"We could make firefighting organizations nearly perfect and give them all the planes, engines, equipment and training possible, but the inescapable truth is that our overgrown forests and brushlands are the real problem."
Families in San Diego County saw last fall how hard it is to stop a 200-foot wall of flame, burning at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with flaming tree limbs being launched a mile ahead of the fire. Under those conditions, there are no guarantees that a home or its occupants will survive.
And, as expansion of building continues into the state's wildlands and factors such as climate change and steadily building fuel loads continue, the stage is set for more catastrophic fires in California.
"Fire safety is at the forefront of our rebuilding plans," Walery said. "We'll have functional, decorative window shutters to prevent wind-driven firebrands from penetrating. Attic vents will be narrow, with fine mesh for fire resistance. The gable-free, hip-style roof is another fire-protective feature, which will lay on top of fire-retardant sheeting.
"If it sounds like we're building a fortress, we are. We've got to if our home is going to survive the next wildfire."
San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Phil Brust said that by taking steps now to prepare for wildfires and other disasters, families greatly increase the chances their homes, animals and property will survive.
"One thing we need to emphasize is that while emergency services personnel work hard to help in disasters, citizens have a level of responsibility in being prepared," Brust said. "We live in wildfire country. If you haven't cleared brush away from your house, that's a problem.
"If you don't have an evacuation plan or aren't prepared to survive for three days without basic services, or haven't thought about evacuating large animals, those are serious problems.
"We find in San Diego County that farmers and ranchers set good examples when it comes to fire safety and disaster planning," Brust said. "They're usually in direct contact with fire agencies in their communities, which are best equipped to respond to concerns about local ordinances."
Jackie Cruz, San Diego County Sheriff's Department agricultural crime prevention specialist, said that more than 400,000 reverse 9-1-1 calls were made in the areas hit by wildfire last October. Cruz herself was evacuated from her home.
"People need to understand that in a disaster there isn't always time to make these warning calls," Cruz said. "And, telephone lines and poles can be destroyed, as can cell phone towers. Remember that reverse 9-1-1 only works for land lines, unless you've registered your cell phone number in advance."
Emergency response experts agree that last fall's wildfires were catastrophic. But they also provided some valuable lessons--the importance of planning, the strength of communities and the love of families.
The Olson family, from left, Taylor (11), Steve, Jackie, Lauren (18) and Alexz (14) lost everything in fall 2007's San Diego County wildfires. But, the family moved a mobile home onto their property, salvaged the pool and stayed together.
Surviving a major disaster, however, is only part of the challenge, according to Steve Olson, who manages avocado groves and owns a firewood business in Highland Valley, another area hard-hit by the wildfires. Olson's home and business were destroyed when the wildfire swept over his property. Up the hill from him, two people, who chose not to evacuate, died.
"We're back and rebuilding. I want my family back on our property even if it's only in a temporary trailer," Olson said. "We could have rented a house, but I've lived here all my life and my business is based on this property."
He said the biggest lessons he has learned from last fall's wildfire disaster is not to underestimate the power of a fire. He sent his family down the mountain first, but nearly stayed too long trying to protect his property. Only because he knew the road out so well was he able to navigate to safety through the blinding smoke.
Jackie Olson, left, with daughters Lauren and Taylor enjoy old family photos that were taken to safety before the firestorm hit. Many wildfire victims say losing irreplaceable family photos is deeply painful.
"Another thing I've learned is about insurance," Olson said. "Read your policy, increase the amount of coverage as new property and equipment are added. I found Parts of my business were under-insured given today's replacement values."
It's taken months of hard work, but the rubble and wreckage of his home and business have been cleared. His wife and three daughters are settling into the mobile home, and the patio and swimming pool have been cleaned up and are back in use.
This disaster has been tough for all of us," says Steve Olson, "but my wife, Jackie, has really carried a heavy load. She has kept our family together and maintained our focus on the future.
The Olsons celebrated an important milestone on the patio the other day: his father's 80th birthday. Recovery from the fire has been slow, Olson said, sitting by the pool in patio furniture pockmarked from flying embers, but things are coming back together.
Meanwhile, Nancy Walery shows off a pair of earrings discovered while sifting through the rubble of her destroyed home and, miraculously, amidst the ashes she found a gift given to her long ago. Completely untouched by the fire, she holds in her palm a Wedgwood china egg delicately decorated with a tiny white cherub. She says it's now one of her most cherished possessions.
Both families think it will be at least two years before homes and offices are replaced and their lives are back to something close to normal, but it will take a lifetime to shake the memories of what was lost.
Be smart, get ready
Wildfire is just one of the many disaster threats Californians face. Here are some preparedness tips from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES).
- Identify your risk: Whether it's fire, flood, earthquake or hazardous materials, know which threats are likely in your area and plan now to respond.
- Create a family disaster plan: Know where to regroup if evacuation is needed, identify an out-of-state "family contact" and make sure everyone knows how to get emergency information.
- Practice your disaster plan: Know whether to stay put indoors or whether to evacuate by car. If told to evacuate, know the proper evacuation procedures and routes. This information is available from local OES offices.
- Build a disaster supply kit: The first 72 hours after a major emergency or disaster may include loss of electricity, gas, water and telephones, including cell phone. Be prepared to live without these things for at least three days following a disaster. Keep emergency supplies at home and in the car.
- Prepare your children: Include children in talks about safety and preparation. Conduct drills and review safety procedures with them every six months.
- Don't forget those with special needs: The elderly, disabled and those with special health needs require extra planning support, like medications, mobility assistance and other equipment.
- Learn CPR and first aid: Local American Red Cross chapters offer a variety of training programs.
- Eliminate hazards in your home and the workplace: Before disaster strikes, knowing where hazardous materials are located and securing them to avoid creating further risk is imperative.
- Understand post-9/11 risks: Disaster preparedness isn't just from natural causes. Americans must now account for man-made disasters, as well. That means understanding the threats of explosions, chemical releases and biological hazards.
- Get involved: Donate blood, join a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), educate your neighbors or volunteer with your local American Red Cross chapter.
The Cal Fire Web site is a comprehensive source of disaster preparedness information. Visit www.fire.ca.gov.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.