Lessons from Lake County, CA 2015 Fire

Last November I was the guest of Ed Orre, battalion chief for Cal Fire in the counties east of San Francisco Bay. The lessons I learned while attending a conference there bear consideration in view of the wildfires now raging throughout California and the west. The Lake County, CA fire (AKA the Valley fire) was an extremely fast fire ignited by faulty hot-tub wiring Sept. 12, 2015, that was quickly spread by erratic winds burning 76,000 acres, 1400 homes, 900 vehicles, uncountable numbers of wild and domestic animals, and four residents. It was the third most destructive wildfire in state history. That was last year.

This year, on August 14, 2016, the devastating Clayton Fire just broke out in Lower Lake, just 15 miles from the Valley Fire described above and just  west of the Rocky and Jerusalem fires that also broke out last September. It is more urgent than ever that homeowners learn what they must do to give their homes a chance to survive these fires.

The Topography Around the Lake County, CA Fire

The topography of Lake County includes three populated areas that suffered considerable losses:

  1. Narrow roads leading to rustic homes in rather inaccessible and remote areas, with a large woody meeting site on Cobb Mountain for barbecues and get-togethers.
  2. A new development of higher-priced vacation homes in the midst of vast growths of manzanita.
  3. The town of Middletown, where the main fire station is located. Nearly every area around Lake County has suffered repeatedly from large wildfires over the years. Access to the entire area is limited, which is part of its appeal.

The rustic areas leading up to Cobb Mountain are similar to those near Big Sur burning in the Soberanes Fire. There was little time for advisory evacuations as power lines were destroyed, resulting in run-for-your-life evacuations. Social media and sheriff’s deputies proved important. Gravity-dependent water supply and generators were knocked out. In some areas all the homes were destroyed. In areas luckily escaping the flames one could see extreme vulnerabilities to fire along narrow roads inaccessible to fire crews. In places along the road leading up to Cobb Mountain there were buildings surviving the fire that had defensible space around them, including farmland and paved  areas.

The Lake County, CA Fire and Damages

In the new development nearly all the homes burned to the ground. They were built in the midst of dense growths of manzanita, a native hardwood bush which, when ignited, burns with a sustained, hot flame, making it a major fire hazard.  There was a single newly-built home for sale in this area that had not been landscaped and survived intact because there were no fuels of any type within 20-30 feet of it.

This photograph shows a house that was ignited by burning embers landing in a vulnerable spot, not from the nearby trees, which were singed on the sides facing the house and survived. Nation-wide, homes are much more likely to be ignited by flaming embers than any other cause.

Ember ignition in the lake county california fire

The two yellow X marks show the house singed the trees, and not the other way around: proof that it wasn’t the trees that started the fire

Within Middletown, there were many examples of homes ignited by embers surrounded by others that survived.  The remains of the  burnt homes had to be cleaned up by crews wearing protective clothing and masks.  They watered down the ruins to avoid spreading contaminants, then loaded the debris on wind free days into closed trucks lined with protective plastic for transport to hazardous waste dumping sites. It cost a homeowner about $30,000 to have his site cleared of heavy metals, asbestos, and PVCs. The fire station survived intact, serving as a perfect example of how to make a building fire safe. The commercial area of Middletown was mostly spared, as there were few fuels here and a lot of pavement.

The Lake County fire is typical in that it was caused by human carelessness, had plenty of available fuel to feast on, and spread so quickly that fire suppression was very limited. Most homeowners did not make their properties fire safe before the wildfire, and did not protect them from embers. We must learn from others’ mistakes and act immediately to avoid being victims of our own negligence.

Wildfire Prevention Strategy Poem


The west is in flames
 It’s hotter than ever
 Trees dying in record numbers
 Smoke and ash spreading afar
 Filling the air with carbon dioxide
 Making things even worse.

Homes are burning
 Memories, lives, communities, lost
 Animals both domestic and wild burnt and dying
 Heavy metals, asbestos, PVC’s
 Poisoning the soil and air.

Firefighters are giving their all
 In 100 degree heat
 Exhausted and overwhelmed
 But what they can do has limits
 As they must decide what can be saved.

Wildfire is blowin’ in the wind
 And no one can control the wind
 Urgent evacuation may be the only answer
 Even without being ordered
 As power lines go down
 And cell phones go dead.

But what if . . .

What if there were a way
 To better protect our homes,
 Our treasures man made and God made
 Our lives and the lives of animals
 As well.

There is a way . . .

If only the property owners, the homeowners
 Stepped up to the plate
 And took responsibility for their home ignition zone
 Which they own
 And made it as fire safe as they can reasonably do.

This is much cheaper than fire insurance
 Which doesn’t begin to cover the loss of one’s home
 Or loss of time, community
 And treasured possessions.

This doesn’t require state or local funding
 Nor is it the responsibility of others
 But the homeowner hasn’t a clue what to do
 Before a wildfire threatens
 And all he can do is
 Run for his life.

If only . . .

If only homeowner’s stepped up to the plate
 And learned how to protect their homes
 From wildfire.

If only their neighbors did so too
 Denying the wildfire
 The fuel it needs
 To spread.

If only this were to happen throughout the west
 And every state of the union for that matter
 As they all experience wildfires.

If only this were to happen
 We could make a difference
 As firefighter resources could be
 Better shared and more effective
 Strategically dispersed at greater distances.

This is a solvable problem . . .

If only homeowners stepped up to the plate
 Together they could hit a home run.
Ember defense matters

Ember defense matters

Wildfire Prevention Site Updated

We’ve made some updates to the Wildfireprevention.info site in preparation for the second edition of The Homeowner’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention.

We were using a tool to offer readers posts related to the ones they are reading. This app had links to unwanted ads and irrelevant news. We’ve turned off this app, streamlining the site.  Now every link on this site will take you to more good wildfire prevention advice.

The covers of The Homeowner’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention have been replaced with the new cover for the new edition. The content within the book remains the same, but we have a new brighter, white cover. The logos of eight organizations involved in wildfire protection have been placed on the cover as a public service at no charge to the organizations, including four fire service departments, two fire-safe councils, and two homeowner’s organizations.

Although these organizations are all within the state of California, the tips provided in the book are meant to be considered by homeowners throughout the United States and Canada.

The more homeowners take the suggested steps to protect their own home, at their own expense, the safer their community will be. This will also make more firefighters from both local and distant areas available for fire suppression. As it is now, firefighters spend 70% of their time doing what property owners should have done themselves.

Wildfire Prevention is a Solvable Problem

ember proof your home for wildfire protection

Ember proof your home for wildfire protection.
  Illustration from the National Wildfire Prevention Association

We are seeing a “perfect storm” situation throughout the western United States and Canada with record-breaking heat, record fuel loads, record drought, and record losses to wildfires. The cost of suppressing these fires is depleting the funds budgeted for fire prevention. To make things worse, the number of firefighters available is limited both locally and nationally, such that sharing resources is increasingly difficult.

Despite these increasing challenges, you can protect your home from wildfires. Here’s what you can do to help solve this problem right now.

Don’t Choose to Be a Victim

The good news about the depletion of fire prevention budgets is that you are the one in control of protecting your home. Firefighters won’t ember proof your home or create a non-ignition zone—that’s your job. Take responsibility by learning specific, relatively simple measures to help your home survive a wildfire in your absence.

Watch a Fire Prevention Video

If you prefer to learn via video, here’s a lecture I gave for the Jackson Oaks Homeowners’ Association 2016 Fire Prevention Seminar in Morgan Hill, California. The video shows how these measures have been implemented on the steep slopes of Hiller Highlands, Phase V, in Oakland CA. Phase V was consumed by the 1991 firestorm in 20 minutes, showering dangerous embers far downwind and across two freeways.

Don’t Procrastinate

Make your home firesafe now, before an overwhelming wildfire threatens and it is too late.  Learn how to do this on wildfireprevention.info for specific, pragmatic wildfire prevention tips.

Wildfire prevention is not a one-time activity. It requires regular on-going maintenance, like a hair style.

Protect Your Entire Property from Embers

You must harden your home and its surrounds against embers even if it is some distance from a fire, as 70% of homes are ignited by embers.

Read my Wildfire Prevention Guide

Get more detailed information by ordering a copy of The Homeowner’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention from Amazon.com. This concise book gathers all that I’ve learned in twenty years of research. It’s available as a paperback or an e-book from Amazon.com.

In Conclusion, Work Together!

These steps can be implemented immediately and do not require any funding by state or local agencies. They go beyond the minimum actions required by inspectors. What we need is a change in behavior of homeowners, who can and must take control of their home ignition zone, which they own. It takes a community.

New NFPA goals for home ignition zone

WUI Lesson 4: The new NFPA goals for the home ignition zone.

The first 0-5 ft.:                        Critical to surviving wildfire

The next 5-30 ft.:                     Stop the fire from burning close to the structure

The next 20-100+ ft.:              Reduce the energy created by the fire

The structure itself tends to be more ignitable that trees, even pines. Once it ignites, it becomes the major source of flying firebrands and toxic gases to downwind properties. The underlying principle is to make it resistant to embers.

Mother Nature’s way of managing vegetation is frequent fast moving fire that burns off surface fuels while preserving large trees and the ecosystem. Efficient suppression of wildfires and timber harvesting have resulted in many forests being ruined because intense fires feeding on the robust undergrowth destroyed the soil itself and large trees that take hundreds or even thousands of years to return.

So act like nature. Prevent fire end embers from coming right up to your house and fence by getting surface fuels, including ignitable mulches, up and off the ground. Limit the fire to a fast moving one that does not lead to sustained heat. Every plant can burn, but reducing the heat a plant is exposed to helps.

Year round maintenance of the established fire safe area is crucial.

Next: The importance of making a structure resistant to embers.