The Thomas Fire in December 2017 claimed two lives, burned 281,893 acres, and destroyed more than 1,000 structures before it was contained on Jan. 12, 2018. The Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD), a small coastal community in California, saw the loss of only seven structures, a remarkably low number given the extreme fire behavior it experienced. The low fire loss was due to the successful mitigation strategies the Montecito community pursued for over two decades beginning in 1994.
Planning for wildfire vulnerability
Factors contributing to wildfire vulnerability are both social and ecological. To be successful, communities need to plan for:
- Exposure vulnerability – What are the fuel conditions in your area? You need a program to reduce the flammability of building materials used in construction and reduce fuel on public and private lands, as well as in the home ignition zone.
- Sensitivity of the exposed community – What are your residents; vulnerabilities? You need to determine the risk factors of your population, such as poverty, age, education, language and special needs.
- Adaptive capacity – Can your residents prepare for, respond to and recover from a wildfire based on their available resources?
MFPD’s pre-fire mitigation activities
You need to know in advance about the special needs of your community and plan for them. Pre-fire activities create relationships with residents that are important to protect your community.
The MFPD used a wide range of pre-fire mitigation activities to address the three socio-ecological factors contributing to wildfire vulnerability. Here are some of the highlights:
The MFPD created wildland fire specialist positions which helped to address all three areas of wildfire vulnerability in the community:
- Exposure vulnerability – Worked with residents to reduce flammability in their community.
- Sensitivity vulnerability – Worked with residents to develop trust; share information; learn about special needs, economic and language barriers within the community; and improve evacuation preparedness based on these assessments.
- Adaptive capacity – Worked with homeowners to reduce the risk of their home burning and increase defensible space around their homes. If residents had difficulty paying for the improvements, the specialist helped find grant money or other free or inexpensive measures.
Several of the MFPD’s mitigation activities related specifically to reducing exposure vulnerability, including:
- A partnership with a local utility company to remove dead trees near power infrastructure.
- Clearing and thinning understory and creating shaded fuel breaks on private property.
- Sponsoring a neighborhood chipping program where residents removed wood to the end of their driveways and MFPD contractors chipped it and hauled it away.
- Conducting defensible space surveys and making related improvements.
- Completing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) which determined what areas would be most prone to ember-cast and where additional fuel reduction efforts were needed.
- Reducing roadside fuels along strategic, private roadways to improve rapid ingress and egress and to widen fire lines.
MFPD identified pre-attack zones for evacuation planning and maps showing water supply and equipment staging areas.
Fire-resistant building codes
The MFPD changed the building codes to ban cedar shakes for roofing and siding, require boxed eaves, and create a new requirement for wider driveways. Wider driveways help residents to evacuate faster. They also provide turnaround space for large fire apparatus leading to faster, safer ingress and egress.
Everyone in the community must buy-in for a comprehensive mitigation plan to work. MFPD was very active in its public outreach efforts, so residents could recognize the danger of wildfire, trust the authorities and evacuate when asked to.
MFPD’s hard work pays off
When the Thomas Fire evacuation was ordered on Dec. 10, nearly all MFPD residents complied. Evacuations did not hinder fire suppression activities because they took place in advance of the fire. Containment lines and fire-retardant lines were put in place in critical areas. They sprayed water on homes and nearby vegetation and employed fire following-tactics to safeguard property.
Firefighters were aided by defensive landscaping and code changes that made homes fire resistant. With enough defensible space around properties, they were less concerned about risk of entrapment. The reduction of roadside fuels helped ensure safe passage of large fire apparatus through the area in both directions on narrow roads.
The CWPP and pre-attack zone mapping gave firefighters a clearer picture of the critical areas. Firefighters had more time to prepare but the pre-fire exposure reduction strategies paid dividends in lessening the fire fuels and making the suppression activities more effective.