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  • Jeffrey Siegel

Paradise Lost - Lessons from the Campfire Wildfire + a Prescriptive Solution for Los Gatos

This past weekend I had an up-close, personal encounter with what little remains of the town of Paradise, devastated by the engulfing flames that rapidly incinerated nearly 19,000 structures in a matter of hours by the Campfire wildfire. Beyond the utter devastation, which resembled a war zone or a horrific scene from the twilight zone, and the human loss, I was struck by the similarities with Los Gatos, which actually has a higher wildfire risk score than Paradise. Did you know that?

Like Paradise, there were both new homes and older homes, and it was the older homes that proved to be most vulnerable to the voracious appetite of the wildfire. Like Los Gatos, Paradise was a sizeable community of around 20,000 residents, with many homes situated in the hillside surrounded by trees. This community was physically in the wildland urban interface (WUI) just as large parts of Los Gatos are today. Other similarities between the two towns include a wildfire season where howling winds blow through creating the perfect wildfire environment were even a single spark - from lightning, human causes, electrical faults, a sparking automobile, or a myriad of other factors could quickly ignite a raging inferno.

It doesn’t take much when the winds become the propelling force that turns a fire into a firestorm moving so rapidly that it leaves firefighters limited in what they can do. Residents of Paradise lost entire streets to the Campfire in a matter of minutes, with the fire consuming everything in its path except for the remnants of brick chimneys still standing. In Los Gatos, a fire propelled by winds moving this rapidly, particularly in the hilly areas of town that are squarely in the wildland urban interface, would incinerate historic homes, mostly built in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s so fast, that these homes would, according to one fire marshal, go up like torches.

Why is that? Because historic homes were constructed with materials and in a manner that offer up the perfect fuel for a wildfire. Old wood, large attics, covered front wood porches, oil based paint, and roofing materials that can quickly be ignited by fire. It doesn’t take much for a historic house to be rapidly consumed as so many of our historic structures were a hundred years ago before the advent of electricity. But what electricity once saved from the dangers of oil lamps, is now among the latest sources that spark wildfires. And for whatever the particular cause of a wildfire, and old historic homes with all of their charm and sense of history embodying our past, will be the most vulnerable to fire consumption.

For Paradise, in the aftermath of the town’s destruction, residents are beginning to rebuild, but this time with a different set of guidelines to keep them safer. For one, they are rebuilding with fire retardant materials. Second, all trees and other vegetation within a 100-foot radius of a home is being completely removed. The rich vegetation that once defined the landscape and the character of the neighborhood will now begin to look more like a desert landscape.

So how do we apply the lessons learned from Paradise to the safety of Los Gatos, which itself has been previously touched in recent times by fires with homes burned, and sits in good part, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. These mountains experience multiple wildfires each year with increasing frequency and size, so putting our head in the sand and hoping a major wildfire won’t touch us is beyond wishful thinking. There are two aspects of this problem to consider – one is wildfire evacuation where the focus is on saving human life, not property. The second is wildfire deterrence where the trees and other foliage are cut far back, and the homes are designed and built to be more fire resistant.

Taking the approach that Paradise is taking to cutting down everything that grows within a one hundred-foot radius of a home would leave Los Gatos looking like it got a bad haircut, more like Phoenix, and is not a particularly desirable approach to adopt though that might be required someday. The second approach is somewhat designed into new building codes that mandate safer construction methods and materials that make a home more resilient to fire. While those newer building codes make a ton of sense for new construction, they do little to address existing homes that over a century old serve as perfect fuel for the next fire to come. And to be clear - it will eventually come, we just don’t know exactly when.

So the compelling question for our town council and planners is what to do to protect those historic homes that sit squarely inside the wildland urban interface (WUI) – that point where the homes are the first to encounter the intense heat of the wildfires flames? It appears that the smart move is to be proactive, and not wait for the big wildfire to happen before learning the hard way from our own unfortunate experience. To be proactive, means to retrofit our WUI-based historic homes with newer, more fire-resistant materials. While this may not be considered ‘historically pure’, historic preservationists across the country are coming to terms with the fact that it’s better to adapt a historic home to new threats in order to protect it than it is to lose an irreplaceable historic structure altogether.

This means, in simple terms, replacing fire welcoming roofs with fire retardant roofing materials. With replacing old porches with newer materials, perhaps still made of wood (or other materials), but at least a more fire-resistant wood of which there are several species. With replacing old wood siding with newer similar looking but less combustible materials, or installing a layer of fire-retardant material as an underlayment beneath the traditional wood siding material. And there are other measures too that can be taken including altering the physical landscape beyond the low bar guidelines offered by the local fire authority which might be applicable in our flatlands but certainly not to our WUI based residents.

The challenge is that all of this cost money, and a great many homeowners of historic homes, many living on fixed incomes, lack the funds to take on extraordinarily high cost projects, particularly at a time when building costs have skyrocketed by over 20% in the past year. What would be required is a public-private partnership much like what Palo Alto, Saratoga, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other communities have already adopted. California’s historic preservation act, which provides economic incentives, would be one excellent source of funding for protecting our history from the very real threat of wildfires.

By having the town council adopt these economic incentives, which over 100 other towns throughout the state of California have already done, we could get ahead of this wildfire threat and take the responsible proactive action that would be in the best interests of our community. The alternative – taking no action with regard to protecting these homes sitting in the highest risk wildland urban interface zone is a sure prescription for inviting calamity to hit Los Gatos, and that is nobody’s best interest. If we can spend $7M dollars to repave concrete streets, we should be able to accept state funding that costs our town little, in order to protect our most vulnerable residents from the inevitable wildfire that will come, sooner or later. It’s time to act, before the next big wildfire, and before our history goes up in smoke leaving us with only photographs of what Los Gatos once was.

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