Monday, Nov. 5, 2007 | It’s hard to miss the roofline of a Porsche 911, even when whole car has burned down to bare metal. The sweeping lines of the rear pillars and the wheel spokes retain their grace, even in flat gray, with all hints of polish and powder coat blazed off.
Nice cars made a rather stunning sight amidst the wreckage of the Witch Fire in Rancho Santa Fe. The scorched carcass of a $100,000 Mercedes alone is a halting find. And one couldn’t help but notice the frequency with which the graceful outlines of high-end German washing machines and sports cars survived the complete destruction of the wood and stucco structures that housed them.
This poetry of ruined wealth was often exploited in news coverage of the fires, quite obviously because the remains of glamorous houses and cars simply make for rich (pardon me) material.
But, aside from the visual effect, aren’t we all a bit naive to be shocked by a string of smoldering mansions in a wildfire paradise? What puts my jaw on the floor is the fact that so many San Diegans with the resources to live anywhere choose a place subject to apocalyptic devastation at the whim of a fall breeze.
A few of them, like John Rikkers, had “literally no experience with this kind of thing in the past.” Rikkers moved his family to Rancho Santa Fe from New York City two months ago. The flames shot out of the canyon beneath his new backyard and swallowed up his new house. Helluva welcome.
But talk to any authority in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District and they’ll tell you that not only were they expecting a big, destructive fire in the area, they were planning for it to happen exactly like it did.
“There are certain areas that are fire prone — they burn,” said Irwin Willis, a former chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District. “How many times has Mailbu burned? Well Rancho Santa Fe if you look at it, it has every single aspect that has led to major fires. It’s got the heavy vegetation, it’s got the narrow winding roads .. power lines going through trees. It’s ripe to burn. And it has been for a long time. It still is.”
As would-be torches go, Rancho Santa Fe seems perfect. Most properties are huge, from one to a dozen acres or more. Undeveloped open space is common — usually with natural scrub. Groves of tall eucalyptus trees (which produce dramatic explosions and cascading embers in a fire) are omnipresent – so representative of the area, in fact, that they feature prominently on the official logo of its largest homeowners association.
So the only thing truly surprising about the walls of fire in Rancho Santa Fe was that they stopped where they did: about a block short of the central village.
“I realize a lot of people did lose homes, but for them to save the town of Rancho Santa Fe is just amazing,” Duncan Hadden, who owns The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, said. Hadden spent the whole firestorm in his family’s hotel and witnessed, around 3 a.m. Oct. 26, the effort he credits with saving the place. “If you’d have seen [the fire], you’d have bet everything in your pocket that there’s no way they could stop it.”
The ex-fire chief agrees. “I was in the fire service for 33 years and I have no idea how they were able to stop the fire like they did,” Willis said. “My predictions were that the fire wouldn’t get stopped and that it would just continue basically to Solana Beach and the Pacific.”
Even a fire chief thought the Ranch was screwed? How completely discomforting!
But Willis’ pessimism was based more on knowledge of the area — like the number of shake-shingle roofs around — than a conviction that fire-prone areas are uninhabitable. He knows what we could do to make luxury life in a tinderbox a bit more secure. Willis pioneered “shelter-in-place” standards for new homes in the area, many of which were swept over by the Witch Fire. And in all the developments that implemented his guidelines — which cover everything from landscaping to driveway design — not one home was lost.
“I was very pleased with the way the shelter in place communities handled the fires,” he said. “The houses were right at the top of the ridgeline so it was kind of a worst-case scenario for a fire — you don’t want the structures above the fire with heavy fuels below. So those structures withstood worst-case scenario fire and were untouched, totally untouched.”
Other fire protection methods are available at a cost. You could have your insurance company surround your multimillion-dollar home with fireproof foam when the flames approach. Or get a pump, like Greg Hillgren did 10 days before the fire, that shoots swimming pool water through a fire hose at incredible distance. Before leaving, Hillgren says he “probably put down about 20,000 gallons” near his home. Even the pros had a go with it, draining two-thirds of his pool.
Of the 55 structures in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District destroyed by the Witch fire, nearly all were houses — sheltering either horses, humans or guests. Relief and rebuild funds sprouted up right away, but “the residents of this community have the resources and the connections to help themselves for the most part,” local pastor Jack Baca said.
To continue living here, they’ll have to help themselves with fire protection as well. And perhaps get used to replacing that Porsche.