Fire Planning Success Stories

By placing the emphasis on what needs to be done long before a fire starts, the California Fire Plan looks to reduce fire fighting costs and property losses, increase firefighter safety, and contribute to ecosystem health. Known as "pre-fire" management such actions as prescribed fires, fuel breaks, defensible space around homes, forest management, and fire safe landscaping are proven methods of reducing wildfire destruction. It is important for Californians living in the State's wildland areas to understand the need for pre-fire activities. During each of the fires listed here, pre-fire actions played roles in reducing the destruction and government cost, and increasing safety for firefighters.

The Caylor Fire was caused by an equipment spark on July 14, 1999 near the town of Soulsbyville in Tuolumne County. The blaze began just after 11 a.m. in wildland that borders the Willow Springs subdivision. Driven by wind and high temperatures, the blaze spread rapidly. As fire crews responded, the fire was actively making its way toward the subdivision.

Fortunately, CAL FIRE was aware the neighborhood was a high-risk area for wildland fire. In 1998, the subdivision was inspected and a plan implemented which encouraged homeowners to create a "defensible space" between their land and the wildland that borders it by clearing flammable vegetation around their property. In the spring of 1999, the subdivision was re-inspected and the homes were found to have complied with the program.

The homeowner's hard work providing clearance for their property paid off and the fire did not burn into their neighborhood. Knowing the homeowners had taken precautionary measures to protect their property, firefighters were able to concentrate their attack on the head of the fire. This allowed firefighters to contain the fire quickly and with fewer resources.

While the Caylor Fire did burn 105 acres, no damage occurred to the 14 homes in the area. The "defensible space" program saved approximately $2.4 million in total value of homes and taxpayers benefited as firefighters did not have to resort to the use of countless hours of expensive air and ground attack resources.

In 2000 the BLM and CAL FIRE began working on a community fuel break to protect the communities of Poppet Flat, Rancho Encino, and the Silent Valley RV Club. The strategic placement of this fuels treatment project protected the community from the Esperanza Fire and slowed the fire’s progress. On the west side of the communities was a large area of chaparral between the homes and the fuel break. A prescribed burn was planned to reduce the fuel loading in this area. In 2005 the first unit was burned along with the fuel break north and west of town.

The morning of October 26th the Esperanza Fire spread beyond Highway 243 and began to threaten the area. As the fire approached the community its progress was slowed by the fuel breaks and diverted by the prescribed fire. When the fire hit the prescribed burn it was diverted north around the community giving residents the ability to remain in the community or “shelter in place” while the fire burned past. This saved people from needing to evacuate on Highway 243 through the fire in the area of Twin Pines and down hill to Banning.

During the Esperanza Fire morning briefing the incident command team thanked those responsible for the fuels project and acknowledged its strategic importance in helping firefighters save the communities and allowing the citizens to shelter in place. A map of the fire shows a large unburned island in the fire; this is the Poppet Flat area. The gratefulness of the local residents for their safety and their unburned homes makes this a rewarding project. With the growing population and development in Southern California fuels projects such as this are crucial in protecting communities and resources.

The Goat Fire was caused by a campfire on July 18, 2000. Located in steep, rocky terrain along State Highway 44 in Lassen County, the fire spread rapidly toward the community of Lake Forest Estates. Because of extreme fire conditions, and as a precaution, evacuations were started.

Over 1,100 fire fighting resources were called in to battle the flames which were racing through heavy timber, jumping from treetop to treetop in the form of a crown fire. The land had been owned by Roseburg Resources timber company before purchase by Sierra Pacific Industries. Roseburg had completed a thinning and chipping project in the area back in 1991. When the Goat Fire reached this thinned area flames dropped from the top (crown) of the trees to the ground where firefighters were able to attack it.

In addition to the thinned area, Roseburg had completed a 1000-foot shaded fuel break along one side of Lake Forest Estates in 1990. The fire reached within a mile of the community. Firefighters were able to safely stop the fire in the thinned forest keeping the flames out of Lake Forest Estates and saving several thousand acres of productive forest.

The Goat Fire was contained on July 19 at 1,117 acres.

Ventura County's Ojai Valley has long been considered an area especially susceptible to wildland fire. The valley is known for its high winds and dense vegetation. These conditions were made worse in the winter of 1999 when a lack of rainfall made high intensity wildland fire even more likely.

On the night of December 21, 1999 firefighters got the call that they had long been expecting: Fireworks had ignited the Ranch Fire in the upper Ojai Valley and in its path lay homes, schools and agriculture. As Santa Ana winds roared through the valley, the situation looked dire and left many local residents expecting a terrible disaster to be left in the Ranch Fire's wake.

However, almost seven years earlier a process was started that would ultimately save the community while saving the taxpayers millions of dollars. The Ventura County Fire Protection District's Vegetation Officer started a five-year plan to reduce the threat in areas with the greatest potential for costly damaging wildfires. A large percentage of the cost of the project was provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after severe firestorms ravaged areas of Southern California in 1993.

The upper Ojai Valley had specifically been included in the plan, and by the spring of 1993 a comprehensive action plan was put together with the cooperation of landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, local schools, businesses and residents.

Cooperators used prescribed burns to create a defensible space between vegetation and homes. Further vegetation was cut and stacked in many areas and was burned in low intensity prescribed fires during the winter. Maintenance of this new community protection fuel break was the next issue. Property owners then fenced the area and used livestock to eat the chaparral re-growth. Almost all of the homeowners in the community pitched in by cleaning flammable vegetation from around their homes. Fire department inspectors reported 99 percent compliance with local and state fire hazard clearance laws.

During the first few hours of the incident many success stories unveiled themselves. The weed abatement and pre-fire work made the disaster much less damaging than it otherwise would have been. While 4,400 acres and one home had burned, crews were successful at saving the other 67 homes in the area. Efforts by this committee freed up fire fighting forces to attack the fire before it could enter the community of Ojai. This is an example of how insightful planning and interagency teamwork can save communities from certain destruction by wildland fire.

At 10:30 am on November 8, 2013, CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo Unit mounted a full-scale wildfire response to a 20 acre fire near Toro Creek Road and Highway 41, west of Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County. This area is characterized as mountainous terrain that is heavily covered in brush, set within the northwestern tip of the Los Padres National Forest.

During the operational planning of this fire, the West Atascadero Wildland Fire Pre-Plan map (Figure 1), created by the SLU Unit Pre-Fire Division was utilized. This topographic map, displayed at 1:16,000 scale, was completed in November 2009. The topographic lines are displayed at 40 ft intervals and are overlying a hill shade. Incident commander, Battalion Chief Phil Veneris, successfully utilized this map and explained that the map helped in “gathering situational awareness on the same operating plan”. He also stated that he has utilized this and other pre-attack plan maps for a variety of other plans and incidents, such as planning vegetation management projects and search and rescue missions. He reflected that the maps are clearly marked with symbology that incident commanders need to see on fire planning maps. In particular, he was pleased to see that home address points were also included, which allowed him to immediately identify homes that needed to be evacuated. Chief Veneris further praised the SLU Unit Pre-Fire Division’s creation of the pre-attack plan maps, because he noticed that other firefighters understood what they were looking at on the pre-attack plan map when he was communicating his operating plans. He said that, rather than dealing with the confusion of trying to coordinate an operating plan with various maps from various sources, Chief Veneris now has the ability to have everyone look at the same thing.

Once the operating plan was set in motion, firefighters aggressively attacked the fire from the ground and air. According to the Toro Fire Incident report, 15 fire engines, 5 fire crews, 4 air tankers, 2 helicopters and 3 dozers, and required a total of 219 fire personnel. The Toro Creek Fire burned 51 acres before it was 100% contained by 5:00pm November 9, 2013. All in all, no structures were damaged or destroyed by the fire, and no injuries were reported. Cooperating Fire Departments included Atascadero City Fire, Paso Robles Fire, San Luis Obispo City Fire, Templeton Fire, Morro Bay City Fire and Cayucos Fire, and other cooperating agencies included the US Forest Service, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol. Investigators later found that the Toro Creek fire was caused by an off- road vehicle. Vegetation built-up under the vehicle was ignited by the hot motor, causing the fire.

Another equally important component in this success story was the presence of the West Atascadero Fuelbreak which was completed in 2012 just north of the Toro Fire location. This fuelbreak was conducted under the CAL FIRE HFT2 grant program which was funded by the USFS. The fuelbreak was constructed using mastication equipment and a limited amount of hand crew work.

During the Toro Fire, this fuelbreak was used exactly as it was designed, to offer a strategic location from which to conduct aggressive control operations. Fortunately, the fire was stopped by dozers and aircraft prior to reaching the fuelbreak, due in part to easy access via the fuelbreak. Quick access at the head of the fire was made possible by the fuelbreak, which allowed suppression resources, especially dozers, to quickly access the ridge on the east side of the fire and build a control line down the gas line.

The local knowledge gained through building the fuelbreak and having accurate maps and firsthand knowledge of exactly how to safely and quickly access this area was why the fire was held to just 51 acres. Were it not for the existence of the fuelbreak and the knowledge of the local road system, the dozer line would not have been constructed nearly as quickly and the fire would likely have grown substantially larger.

As a result of the Pre- Attack Map and the presence of the W. Atascadero Fuelbreak, coupled with aggressive suppression operations, the fire was held at a small size, despite significant potential due to heavy fuels and steep topography. This significantly improved firefighter safety, and greatly reduced suppression costs and resource damage.

California is prone to dry lightning in the late summer months. Lightning-caused fires can cost taxpayers millions of dollars because lightning often ignites multiple fires at one time in remote mountainous areas.

Lightning started the Winton Fire outside of the Stanislaus National Forest in Calaveras County on September 9,1999. When fire crews responded to the call, they already knew that as many as 40 homes could be threatened if they were unable to quickly contain it.

The work of those crews was made easier because of logging and prescribed fire projects that had been done in 1996 by Sierra Pacific Industries. Due to reduced fuel on the northwestern side of the fire where a prescribed burn had been completed the flames burned at a much lower intensity and spread slower. In addition, the main road used by fire personnel to access the head of the fire ran through this treated area. This allowed fire crews safe access and an escape route should they need one. Because of these factors, the Winton Fire Incident Commander was able to concentrate crews and equipment on more actively burning areas of the fire.

While one home and 115 acres were burned, fire commanders estimated that 40 homes and 300 acres of timber were saved due to the ability of the crews to quickly contain the fire. This is an example of how pre-fire planning and treatment saves homes, resources and money. One of the major benefits of the pre-fire efforts taken in this area was improved firefighter safety. Crews were able to safely access the Winton Fire from the west due to the prescribed fire done earlier. It was not safe for crews to access the flames from any other side due to the high fire intensity in those areas.

The Winton Fire was contained on September 12.