With the many disastrous wildfires affecting California, Oregon, and Washington, and other states, people may begin to wonder if they could protect their homes from a wildfire if the nearest fire departments were already busy and overwhelmed in trying to put out many wildfires.
I lived in Santa Barbara for a number of years, serving as a professor of biology and the chairman of the environmental studies center. Wildfires were then as they are now always a threat to the city of Santa Barbara. I have had two friends in California who protected their homes from wildfires. Here’s how they did it. You’ll see it isn’t easy.

Within the city of Santa Barbara

One friend lived in Santa Barbara in an area that most visitors would think would be quite safe and well-protected by the city fire department. His home lot occupied about an acre or two a short distance from Santa Barbara’s historic mission, and therefore people would expect the fire department would pay special attention to protecting it and the surroundings from a wildfire.
But my friend’s home was in what had been part of a large grassy area that would burn easily and fast, grasslands surrounded his lot, and he had no faith that the fire department would ever get there in time if a wildfire came down from the mountains above the mission. He was an expert botanist and naturalist and good with construction and machinery. His grounds were beautifully planted with trees, shrubs, and small flowers, all of the kinds relatively resistant to fires, and creating a lovely woodland. The plantings were as dense as a tight forest.

To get around his heavily wooded lot, he built open soil walkways through the dense vegetation. Some led directly from the main road to his home and to various outbuildings. Others wound around to small ponds he had built, each of which was decorated by a whimsical sculpture by one of his friends. The sculpture that comes to mind was a huge smiling frog in a modernistic style.
He and his wife had built their own house.

She was an expert seamstress with the national contract to make period clothes for those places you used to be able to go to and have your photograph taken in some past era, like when Lincoln was president. Both were careful artistically. They had the top quality “Zero” brand refrigerator decorated by special tiles they installed themselves. The living room and kitchen floors were tiles that they had specially made and hand-fired by a craftsman near San Francisco. As you can tell, this was a special, extremely beautiful, and carefully thought out home.

My friend built a large bunker, about the size of a two-car garage, going down deeper than a typical house cellar. It was built of about two-foot thick concrete, completely fireproof. He had his own professional, small fire truck, with all the pumps and tools on every modern such machine. This was housed in the fire-proof bunker on a movable platform that could be raised to ground level or lowered to the cellar, depending on need and use.

His land was near one of the streams that flowed down the mountains then near the mission, and he had dug a well and tested its flow rate, finding it more than adequate to handle a wildfire that approached his land.
A large diesel-electric generator with an ample fuel supply was next to the entrance and could be started quickly with a switch by the door. It ran the water pump and immediately raised the fire truck into a position to be driven out into one of his woodland paths.

Periodically he tested this equipment. Not only did he and his wife have one of the most imaginative homes I have ever seen, but also the most heavily equipped fire-fighting system I have ever seen in any private home. If you believe you live in an area that you have to protect yourself, you couldn’t find a better guide and model that this friend’s house. But the bottom line is that doing it yourself is not simple, cheap, or easy.

A home in the fire-prone mountains that surrounded Los Angeles.

Another friend, a physician with a practice in Los Angeles, decided with his wife that they didn’t want to live in the crowded L. A. valley, but wanted to live out in the country. He was an amateur naturalist and loved the forests and rough country of the southern California mountains.
They chose some land up in the mountains that framed the northern Los Angeles valley, in a woodland that suffered frequent wildfires. He understood the risks and accepted them, deciding that if he was going to live in such an area— his choice—he should not depend on, nor make responsible, the local government fire departments. He was an independent sort, not expecting the government to always bail him out of this kind of problem.

He bought an old fire truck which he had restored, and like my other friend, had protective housing built for it, his own electric generator and water pumping system adequate to fight wildfires. He looked into the latest firefighting and prevention chemicals and found that there was one you could spray onto the roof of your buildings and that would make it impossible for a wild fire to burn the buildings. It was some kind of foam that was not permanent and was to be used as a fire approached.

His self-protection system became famous enough that after one wild fires in the forests near his home, and which his home survived, he was interviewed at length on L. A. TV about what he had done and why he had done it. He explained that he understood the risks he and his family were taking, that they accepted those risks as part of their life, and had as a result prepared, using the best equipment.

It is interesting and important to compare these two homes and their owners with the usual way that most American citizens think about wildfires. It is my experience from the work I did on wildfire prevention and control that most people didn’t really think about these environmental risks very much at all. They picked a home to buy based on what they could afford, on the pleasantness of the site, and on the scenery available in the distance. In the coastal region of southern California, this generally meant a home in the hills surrounded by woodlands with a lovely view down to the city and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

In other words, people tended to buy where environmental risks—not only wildfires, but floods, mud slides, and earthquake damage —were high. Traveling around Santa Barbara, I couldn’t believe some of the house locations. In that environment and geology, streams dug deep, creating lovely valleys with almost vertical sidewalls. A lot of homes were built on horizontal stilts sticking out from the nearly vertical sides of the stream valley. Informally they looked like they were about to fall down, but they were pretty solidly anchored when the environment was benign. However, these homes were highly vulnerable to floods, mud slides, wildfires, and earthquakes.

Nearby, on relatively flat lands, some of the most expensive homes in Santa Barbara were built within fire-prone woodlands on slopes that provided beautiful views down into the valley. The residents I knew who lived there simply expected the fire department would save their houses and that the risk of wildfires were relatively low. So they didn’t prepare. Many of them didn’t even have a kit of their most memorable and important things that they would want to get into their car(s) when a fire got nearby.

I came to believe that not only did few people think very much about the environmental risks where they lived, but seemed to assume if a house had been built, it must have passed some government safety requirements and they didn’t have to worry.

During that time, the Santa Barbara fire marshal told me that two things were true: (1) a single fire could burn the entire city and (2) that people could not put out a fire, only nature – when the winds died down could do so. But few of the ordinary residents thought in these terms. They seemed also to assume that in this city the fire department must be capable of handling wildfires, as if this were some kind of legal requirement or even a law of nature.

The first month I lived in Santa Barbara, having rented a home temporally just outside the city in one of those valleys whose surrounding hills were woodlands that burned readily, I experienced the capabilities of the local fire department. The first week I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as Professor of Biology and chairman of the Environmental Studies Program, I was getting my things set up when my wife called and said “There’s something interesting happening here and you might like to see it. It’s a wildfire in the hills.” To us just arriving from the east coast, this just seemed a local curiosity. I said I was sorry, but I was too busy getting settled and couldn’t take the time off to come to see something just for fun. Within an hour she called again and said “We’ve been evacuated.

The fire department has a truck going around saying we are in a likely place for this wildfire to spread. What should I take in the car?” We discussed this and she went to pack the car. An hour or so later she called and said “Nobody else is leaving. I started down the road, but I was the only one and felt silly, so I’m not either. I’m back home. I’m doing what the neighbors are doing, turning the hose on the roof. But you better come home.”

I tried driving home, but the fire department’s equipment had gotten down to the major interstate, Highway 101, blocking the road. In fact, just where the police stopped my car, burning small branches were blown by the intense winds from a tree on one side of the road to another on the ocean side, spreading the fire instantly to a much larger area. So I and my son, who was with me on his way home from school, walked the few miles cross-country to our home.

At our house, as dusk approached, we could see the fires in the hills. A large fire truck came up our road and stopped. The driver leaned out and said. “Say, can you tell us how we can get up into the hills there where the fire is burning?” It was not the most encouraging thing to hear, especially to a new resident like myself from the east coast. We admitted we didn’t know.

My son and I agree to stand four-hour watches all night in case the fire did start to approach and we would have to leave. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I would say that this didn’t give me the best impression of the capabilities of the local fire department.

However, I later learned that the firemen were, as they are most places, highly motivated and skilled, and they mostly did the best possible with the technology of the time and human capabilities.

Article Written by DANIEL B. BOTKIN 2020

Editing Support Provided by Ken Purdy