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.