Wildfire is a natural phenomenon on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County, and there are things we can do to be better prepared. The Lockheed Fire (2009) followed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire (2020) illustrate the extreme danger of wildfire as well as the potential return interval. Wildfires can repeat over the same landscapes quite frequently. Until we figure out how to use prescribed fire across our landscape to reduce the chance of wildfire*, we should plan on big, catastrophic wildfires at least every 10 years, especially because global warming will most probably increase the frequency and intensity of wildfire in California. If our infrastructure is well built and well maintained, we will be happier and nature, the land around us, will be better stewarded. To this end, we have much to learn and much work to do.
For most of us, our most expensive burnable item is our home and its contents. What can we do to protect houses? Our State’s wildfire agency, CALFIRE, starts with a simple message: “Clear to 100 feet!” But, what does this mean?
The hundred foot clearance guideline is meant to provoke questions about how to create a fire-safe envelope that will help to protect houses and the firefighters whose help is needed while a wildfire is blazing. (more about what that work entails in another essay) “Clearance” doesn’t mean every bit of everything needs to be removed from a one hundred foot radius around your house: it means vegetation must be “managed” within that area. Too much of the wrong vegetation in the wrong patterns can create flames that will set fire to your roof or siding, or break your windows and light the inside of your building. But, mostly poorly managed vegetation endangers fire fighters. 100’ of vegetation management is not always enough, but it is the beginner’s guide to getting started.
There are diagrams with written descriptions and checklists as well as videos, about what 100’ of clearance means. Unless you’ve been trained to interpret those resources, it is almost certain you won’t be able to apply them to your landscape. Just as a person new to cooking is unlikely to have success from a written recipe for chicken cattitore, someone who hasn’t learned about vegetation management directly from professionals is unlikely to get it right. Even if you aren’t doing the work yourself, if you are hiring landscapers claiming to know what to do, it is best if you have a basic understanding of the science behind firescaping before you waste time and money going it on your own. Take a workshop, occasionally offered by the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council, visit guided demonstration sites, and seek advice from knowledgeable people, especially anyone who is experienced and whose work has demonstrably saved other homes during wildfires. Count on at least 40 hours of training to develop the necessary basic understanding and a day of continuing education each year to keep up on the latest information.
Protecting Other Stuff
It is important to understand that the house itself is rarely your only infrastructure needing wildfire maintenance- there are normally a lot of other things that require similar attention. These include: fences, outbuildings, water systems, power systems, lawn furniture, gardens, etc. Everyone understands that wood burns, but so does plastic…even metal can get damaged by fire. All of these things are costly and preparation can save you money when wildfire happens. If all of this other stuff is within your zone of 100’ of clearance, your plans in that zone must account for those, even there. If they are outside that safety envelope, they will need special attention in those other locations.
If you live in the country, roads and driveways are important to think about in case of wildfire. If you are lucky enough to live in a forest, creating shaded fuel breaks along those transportation corridors will be relatively easy to maintain annually but can be costly at the outset. If you live in shrubby or grassy areas, you will have to work several times each year to reduce fuels- annually, these take much more time and effort than in forests. Take note: most roads have culverts under them to carry rain runoff; hopefully, those culverts are concrete or metal, but if they are plastic they will easily burn and are expensive to replace, so those will need fire maintenance plans, as well.
Using an aerial photograph, create a map of all of the critical stuff on your property – your house, power, roads/driveways, and water infrastructure. Make a separate map of the other “stuff.” When you get those maps right- clearly marked and easily read, keep a set with your ‘go’ bag– the bag you grab when you evacuate during a wildfire. Keep another set next to your front door to give to firefighters as orientation for your site. Over time, as you are working with others to develop a fire safe landscape, you can use a set of these maps for planning purposes. These maps are also good reminders about what you need to protect each year while working on vegetation management.
* footnote: Chuck Striplen’s research for this region provides strong evidence that Native Peoples applied fire based on their Traditional Ecological Knowledge every 4-6 years. The catastrophic nature of fire after 11 years provides evidence that they understood when to apply fire to avoid such conflagrations.