In California, it’s a scene all too familiar: a late October day, the winds pick up, and a few sparks explode into a megafire, rapidly overtaking a community.
In 2007, it was Rancho Santa Fe’s turn. It's not a place you’d want to fight a fire — hundreds of homes sitting on rolling hillsides, surrounded by the scrubby chaparral common to northern San Diego County.
“It doesn’t get any worse than this,” said Rancho Santa Fe Fire Chief Fred Cox, looking out at the tidy subdivisions from a hilltop. “This is about as steep as it comes.”
Rancho Santa Fe, like so many other California communities, sits on the vulnerable border between development and open space.
Firefighters have a name for this: the wildland-urban interface. Essentially, it means things you don’t want to burn, like houses, have been built next to something that’s supposed to, the ecosystem.
On Oct. 21, 2007, the Santa Ana winds carried the Witch Fire into town, the flames funneled through low valleys or “avenues of fire,” as Cox calls them.
“It was like raining fire,” he said. “I remember going down some streets down here, La Breccia, and it’s like, man, if I go down there, I don’t know if I’m going to make it back out.”
Even before the fire actually hit, Cox had a problem.
“The fire wasn’t even close, but we had homes burning,” he said. “I would drive down the road and it was, like: How did that house catch on fire?”
The answer was embers, blown far ahead of the fire front. They’d land on a wood roof or leaf-filled gutter, or even get sucked into an attic vent. In many fires, the majority of homes are ignited this way.
Cox and his crew rushed around the evacuated neighborhoods, trying to stop the flames from spreading to neighboring homes.
But then they got to one subdivision that was, surprisingly, calm.
“The only thing we had to do was put out a couple palm trees and the plastic trash cans that were burning,” Cox said. “The houses were perfectly OK. It was amazing.”
The neighborhood had been designed and built with wildfire in mind.
Built to Burn
The transformation of Rancho Santa Fe into a fire-aware town had begun more than a decade earlier.
“When I came into Rancho Santa Fe, I saw a community that was built to burn,” said Erwin Willis, who moved there to become fire chief in 1993 and has since retired. “It had large homes with shake roofs, narrow, windey roads, not a good water supply.”
At the time, Rancho Santa Fe was growing, with new homes pushing farther into open space. Willis knew the risk.
“The same communities burn over and over and over again,” he said. “How many times has Malibu burned? How many times has Santa Barbara burned? So if we don’t learn how to build in those areas, we’re going to keep losing lives and homes.”
So Willis started drafting new building codes for his district, requiring installations proven to protect homes, like noncombustible roofs, noncombustible siding, fire sprinklers and double-pane windows.
The idea was far from mainstream at the time. It’s often more expensive to build homes with those features, and developers were concerned.
Then in 1996, fires broke out all over Southern California, including one in San Diego.
“It’s generally much easier to get codes passed right after a fire,” Willis said. “So I took this code to our board right after that fire.”
The fire district’s board voted to adopt the new building codes. But the first real test didn't come until 11 years later, with the Witch Fire. Willis watched it approach from a fire station.
“Honestly, I was just hoping it was going to work,” he said.
And it did. No houses were lost in the newly built neighborhoods, while the older part of town lost about 50.
Not long after, California passed similar building codes for all new homes built in fire-hazard zones, as designated by statewide Cal Fire maps.
Still, even fire-resistant homes become less safe over time, because individual residents make small decisions that collectively put the entire community at risk.
So Rancho Santa Fe has tried to change how residents think about fire.
In some neighborhoods, street parking isn’t allowed in front of homes, since it would impede fire trucks on narrow roads. It’s not a popular rule when people want to throw a party.
The fire district also strictly enforces state regulations governing weeds and brush. Californians in high fire-risk zones are required to manage vegetation within 100 feet of their homes, with the toughest requirements within 30 feet.
That area is known as “defensible space,” and meeting the requirements for maintaining it means clearing out dead leaves and brush, mowing weeds or grasses and establishing gaps between trees and shrubs.
Enforcement of these rules is lax in some parts of the state, but not in Rancho Santa Fe. The fire district checks around 29,000 properties for compliance annually.
“We have a couple of inspectors, that’s all they do is check weeds and hazards, and it’s year-round,” Cox said.
The fire district has even passed its own rules above and beyond the state’s. No palm, pine or cypress trees are allowed within 30 feet of a home, because they’re too flammable. Mulch cannot be applied within 12 inches of a house, since it easily catches fire. Next year, the district expects to extend the mulch-free zone to 5 feet.
If homeowners don't comply with the rules, the district will hire a contractor to clear the vegetation, and the homeowner will get the bill. If they don’t pay, a lien can be put on their home to recoup the cost.
Inspectors get a lot of pushback, Cox says.
“They get hammered every day until something happens, and then when something happens the people are really gracious,” he said.
Even if a community takes all these steps to protect itself, there are no guarantees. Cal Fire says wildfires are becoming more unpredictable. The 2018 Carr Fire created a fire tornado that lasted nearly an hour. And climate change is making fires more extreme.
“There’s no such thing as a truly fire-safe community,” Cox said. “They can be safer, but in the environment we live in, nothing’s truly safe, 100% safe.”
Some worry that having tougher codes will encourage the building of new housing developments in risky fire areas.
"The argument for their approval is that they will use materials, up to the latest fire-safe building codes, and that they'll have defensible space and great evacuation routes," said Alexandra Syphard, a fire scientist with SAGE Underwriters. "Many of the homes that burned in the recent years in California had all of those features, and they still burned because the fire was burning under unbelievable wind conditions."
Rancho Santa Fe’s fire programs also require financial resources, something that’s easier to come by in a higher-income community. The fire district is funded by local taxes on the town's multimillion dollar homes.
“Honestly, I get concerned ... the only people that will be able to afford to live in natural environments will be the very wealthy,” said Chris Dicus, professor of wildland fire at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. “They’ll be the ones who can afford getting through the planning process, the actual building, etc.”
Recent fires have shown that California’s wildfire building codes have helped save homes. But the vast majority of houses at risk from wildfire were built before the 2008 regulations were put in place.
“We have communities like Paradise all up and down the Sierras that were built a long time ago,” Dicus said. “So those homes are at extreme risk.”
Older homes can be retrofitted with fire-safe roofs or siding. Less expensive retrofits, such as covering attic vents with a fine mesh screen, can also make a difference.
This year, state lawmakers had been considering AB 38, a bill that would have created a $1 billion fund to help homeowners make these improvements with low-interest loans or rebates.
But after the money wasn’t included in the May revision of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget, lawmakers removed the $1 billion amount. The legislation now creates the fund but without a specific number of dollars attached. It the bill passes, lawmakers will have to decide how much to fund it with in next year's budget.
“Hardening homes is profoundly important,” Newsom said in May. “I look forward to working with the Legislature to see if we can identify money along the lines of what we do for earthquake retrofitting.”
Dicus says that to really make California safer, everyone at risk from fire will have to work consistently to prevent it, whether it’s clearing vegetation, fixing homes or preparing evacuation plans.
“It’s not going to be easy, but if we want to enjoy the quality of life here in California,” he said, “we’re going to have to make that a decision as a society to do so.”