In the early hours of December 16, 2017, hot embers began raining down on the Southern California town of Montecito.
Ominous, orange flames soon appeared on hills above the wooded community as the infamous Thomas Fire, burning for nearly two weeks at that point, lunged over the ridge and pushed into the enclave below.
The odds weighed in the fire’s favor: The winds picked up overnight, blowing 65 mph gusts in the direction of hundreds and hundreds of homes.
But when the smoke and ash finally settled, the fire had lost — for the most part, anyhow.
“They thought for sure that they were going to lose 400 or 500 homes — instead they only lost seven,” Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of Idaho and former wildland firefighter, said in an interview.
“It was a tremendous success story.”
While there’s no such thing as a fire-proof town in notorious fire country, Montecito is perhaps as close as it gets.
Now, as fire experts and emergency crews still grapple with the horrors of the Camp Fire, by far the deadliest and most destructive in California history, Montecito’s defensive efforts show that today’s megafires — exacerbated by climate change — can be resisted. It won’t ever be pretty, nor perfect, but homes can be defended, and at worst, people can have time to flee.
“It’s the difference between living in a matchbox and a place that’s more resistant,” Kolden said.
Becoming fire resistant
Montecito’s defensive fire efforts, developed over nearly two decades, haven’t required technological breakthroughs nor big infusions of cash. Since 1999, Montecito has spent a little over $1.6 million on becoming fire resistant.
“That’s so small,” said Kolden.
The defensive campaign adopted an almost battle-like strategy. Montecito set out to defend the higher road system that cuts across the top of town, largely separating the sprawling Los Padres National Forest from Montecito.
The intent was simple: Thin about 70 percent of vegetation along the high road system, and effectively create a line of resistance.
Not all the vegetation can be removed, of course. That would doom the unstable land during rains, enabling deadly landslides, and debris flows.
“If you go back 20 years, people wanted to run bulldozers behind the whole community,” said Kerry Kellogg, a Montecito city wildland fire specialist. “But that wasn’t acceptable.”
The intent isn’t to keep all the fire out. But to hold wildfires in the hills by choking off their fuel supply. That makes defending the town manageable.
“It’s the difference between living in a matchbox and a place that’s more resistant”
“The fire is going to come through, but it won’t be a big, tall, fire front,” Kellogg, who previously fought fires for 35 years, said.
These changes are subtle, perhaps even imperceptible to the casual observer.
Nearly all the flammable vegetation below a field of oak trees may be removed along the road — but the trees remain amid the naked ground. Or, lines of cactus replace fire-prone trees.
These focused lines of defense proved valuable for firefighters during the approaching December 16 firestorm.
“The firemen said when they were in Montecito there was a comfort level,” noted Kellogg. “You feel like you could safely let the fire come to you.”
The same cleared routes also allow people an improved means of escape — if necessary. In rapidly-moving fires over the past year, both law enforcement and the public found themselves in “tunnels of fire” as flames incinerated the vegetation around them.
“If we remove vegetation on both sides of the road, that allows people to not have that tunnel of fire,” said Kolden.
The ability to safely flee on short notice is also critical because staying put simply isn’t an option in the U.S. Folks in fire country don’t have anywhere to seek refuge, like underground bunkers to hide away from the (fire)storm.
Sure, some homes may be fire resistant, but can’t necessarily withstand an indomitable urban conflagration, like that in Paradise.
“I would say that unless somebody has an asphalt donut around their house and their house is made of concrete, that’s [staying] not a great option,” Alison Green, program coordinator for Project Wildfire, a government disaster organization in Deschutes County, Oregon, said in an interview.
“As much as we can, we like to move people out of the way,” added Green.
Even before a large wildfire hits town, its embers will start raining down upon roofs and vegetation. It’s how a fire effectively spreads, sometimes well in advance of the flames. It’s what happened in Paradise.
“All it takes is one house,” said Kolden. “Once they start burning it’s really tough to stop them.”
But Montecito urges its residents to clear out their yards, put mesh screening over vents (to block embers), and harden their homes in other ways, such as non-flammable roofs. In fact, it’s state law that homeowners in fire country maintain 100 feet of cleared out “defensible space” around their houses.
That Montecito has professionals ensuring or promoting these defensive measures is critical to its fire resistance.
“What makes Montecito different is there’s always been a wildfire specialist — that’s always been their job,” said Kellogg, who watched the flames burning above town in December 2017.
Falling embers are inevitable. So if all the houses in the neighborhood are resistant to catching fire, a big conflagration will have a difficult time igniting amid an unsuspecting, or still evacuating neighborhood.
“You need to have all the houses hardened against fire, so there’s a herd immunity against fire,” said Kolden.
Montecito vs Paradise
Paradise and Montecito are both situated in fire country, but they’re quite different. Paradise is a working-class community surrounded by pine forest, whereas Montecito is one of the nation’s wealthiest enclaves, settled amid Southern California’s shrublands, gnarled oak trees, and the state’s towering, ubiquitous weed, eucalyptus.
The circumstances around the respective extreme fires were different, too. Montecito had been acutely aware of the Thomas Fire for weeks, and firefighters were prepared to make a stand.
“Fires never will be the same,” noted Kellogg. But robust defensive fire lines and intelligent clearing of flammable brush — a method of fire prevention Montecito takes seriously — would almost certainly have helped the now-gutted town of Paradise.
After sparking, the Camp Fire reached the mountain community of Paradise in just 3.5 hours. Once there, it raged right through, consuming wooden homes. It’s velocity shocked fire scientists. People burned alive in their cars.
“It gives people the time they need to escape,” said Kolden of Montecito’s defensive efforts. “I have to believe that would have made a huge difference in Paradise.”
Because future megafires are inevitable, ever spurred on by a warming world and drying land, developing a Montecito-like fire-resistance may no longer be a choice. These modern infernos will undoubtedly come for other towns, like they did for Paradise.
“There are hundreds of Paradise communities out there,” John Bailey, a fire ecologist at Oregon State University, said in an interview.
Crippling the megafires
Yet just as the potent role of climate change can’t be ignored in parching the land and helping to produce record dryness, either can the role of long-suppressed wildfires in the U.S. Wildfires will always come to town, but they can arrive in less mighty forms.
“Part of the solution is not to suppress fires,” said Oregon State’s Bailey.
For well over half a century, the U.S. government has quashed forest fires, which naturally thin out the forests.
“There are hundreds of Paradise communities out there”
“Post World War ll we not only had a culture to suppress fires, but we had new technology for it,” said Bailey, noting that the Interior Department established a well-organized system of lookout towers, air tankers, and trucks.
There was also a slight cooling trend in the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s, owing to large-scale shifts in the dominant Pacific Ocean (though this certainly didn’t stop nor diminish today’s longer-term warming trend).
“It was pretty easy to put fires out,” said Bailey. “I did it for three years — I’m guilty.”
But today, on top of overgrown forests, is the reality of accelerated global warming.
“Now we’re in a climatic period where the fire seasons are getting longer and deeper, hotter and drier, and maybe even windier,” he emphasized.
Thinning out these forests, however, requires federal funding and commitment. And that commitment isn’t there.
Bailey cites the 400,000-some acres of ponderosa pine (a common, fire-vulnerable tree) areas in Oregon’s greater Deschutes National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service only burns, or treats, around 2,000 acres a year, he said.
“Do the math on that,” said Bailey. “In a big fire event, it doesn’t even slow it down.”
But thinning forests won’t slow every fire. The recent Woolsey Fire, south of Montecito, largely burned scrublands and grasslands. There were no overgrown forests to eliminate. It was just a bad fire, helped along by seasonal winds and increasingly dried-out land.
This makes Montecito’s defenses all the more relevant. The fires will continue coming, and these wild woodlands, which sustain life, water, and tranquility, are more susceptible to flame.
“It’s a watershed, it’s a walk in the woods, but it’s also fuel,” said Bailey. “And it’s going to burn.”