Get Fired Up
by Shana K. Wilson
photography by Vincent Knakal
Every year, fire is a force to be reckoned with in San Diego.
During the wildfire season, especially, the heartbreak over loss of lives,
injuries incurred, and loss of property takes its toll. That’s the bad
news. The good news is there are many things homeowners can do to protect themselves
from becoming fire victims. And it is vital to take steps before fire season
begins, when firefighting forces are stretched to the limit.
The fire season
is fueled by hot, dry, and windy weather. These conditions ease ignition;
fuels burn rapidly and with great intensity. Because many homes
in San Diego are adjacent to canyon or country terrain, it is important to
clear the surrounding land of grass, weeds, and flammable plants. Homes on
slopes are particularly vulnerable. Combustible construction, narrow roads,
inadequate water supply, and insufficient fire-resistant landscaping also
increase risk of significant damage due to fire.
“Most homeowners in Rancho Santa Fe don’t think
enough about the possibility of wildfire here,” says Rancho Santa Fe
fire chief Erwin Willis. “They
don’t clear the vegetation near their homes, and one day we will
have a wildfire.”
The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department recommends creating
two zones of landscape around the home, the closest zone extending a
minimum of 40 feet from the
building. Plants in this area should consist of irrigated, ornamental
plants and trees, retaining no more than ten percent of native, non-irrigated
species. The second zone should extend a minimum of 60 feet further,
or 100 feet from the structure. In this zone, reduce flammable vegetation
to a minimum.
Remove dead or dying material from non-irrigated native vegetation, and
trim the lowest branches of trees and shrubs to three times higher than
below or to six feet above, whichever is higher. Completely remove any
debris by cutting down or trimming plants from the area.
to landscape, a home’s architectural design, as well as the
materials used for construction, have an important fire safety impact.
Experts state that homes built away from ridge tops and canyons are safer
built above canyon slopes. Shingle or shake roofs are a fire danger,
of course, but it is wise to use non-combustible materials for the entire
the home. “The number one cause for loss of homes is a combustible
Willis. “If you have one, rip it off and replace it.”
the address numbers on the curb in large, clear, reflective numbers.
And it is a good idea to enclose the underside of decks, eaves, and
balconies with fire-resistive material. Be certain to have fire extinguishers
smoke alarms in the house.
“We have a problem in Rancho Santa Fe because of privacy
issues, with homes not having addresses clearly marked,” says Willis. “If
there were to be a wildfire, most engines wouldn’t come from our station;
they would come from other counties. Finding [specific addresses] would be
Even now, if someone has a medical emergency, it is hard to find
an address quickly, particularly when there are two or three driveways that
In the event that evacuation becomes necessary,
experts recommend developing an evacuation plan that includes
a list of items to
be packed in an
emergency, so that under panic conditions, essential items are
not overlooked. If
possible, involve the children in the planning. Learn at least
two routes out of the
Plan pet transport. Designate a friend or relative
out of the area as a phone contact. And review the plan periodically
members are familiar with it long before it is needed.
to recovering from a disaster like fire is maintaining adequate homeowners
insurance. The 2003 California wildfires
left many families
without homes and
without the funds to rebuild, because they were underinsured.
As real estate appreciates and the prices of building materials
a home will in many cases also rise.
Also, in regions such
as California, if a loss occurs, homeowners have to adhere to certain regulations
and building codes
that drive up square
Current requirements, such as installed sprinkler systems
or seismic reinforcements, add to the cost of replacement.
many homes in an area
are destroyed, as was the case in 2003 when more than 3,700
homes were lost,
the normal supply and demand market functions don’t
apply. Shortage of building supplies and skilled labor
drive up costs to rebuild — sometimes significantly.
it is crucial to review fire insurance coverage with
an agent on a periodic basis. As with all insurance,
it is better
have it and
it than the other way around. And the same can be said
for advanced planning and developing an awareness of
The Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas features
a Firescape Demonstration Garden that has plants with low water needs and
moderate-to-high fire resistance.
The firescape garden shows how a landscape design can reduce the risk of
wildfire damage to a home. The majority of the plant selection, some of which
on this and the previous page, is available at local nurseries. (760/436-3036,