Burned into memory

Strides made one year after Witch Creek

The 2007 Witch Creek fire was a frightening wake-up call for Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Del Mar.

"I think most of us felt that we would never experience fire in our neighborhood," said Bill Beckman, who serves on the Rancho Santa Fe Association board. "We were made very, very aware that's not true at all."

In the year since the fire, with fires lighting up in the North and East Counties earlier this week, one thing is clear: Residents are getting the message that Rancho Santa Fe is one of the top three areas in San Diego County most likely to burn, as stated in a recent report.

And if the Ranch's oil-rich eucalyptus forest lights up, Solana Beach and Del Mar are vulnerable to flying embers and fire coming through the San Elijo Lagoon and San Dieguito River Valley.

All three communities are taking the threat seriously, evidenced by the formation of fire safe councils, record enrollment for Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, and the adoption of ordinances requiring safer roofing.

Clearing the way

Homeowners are now volunteering to clear brush and maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their homes - the most effective way to protect structures from large fires.

"People are more much receptive to things they can do," said David Ott, fire chief for Solana Beach and Del Mar. "In years past, it was a harder sell to get people to do fairly small things to make their property and structures safer from fire."

Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch plan to pursue grant funding to clear dead brush and restore San Dieguito Canyon, where the Witch Creek fire spread into those two communities.

Even though this area burned last year, it is still a fire hazard.

"Although we've had quite a bit of area burn, we have a lot of native grass in those areas," said Nick Pavone, chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District. "While it does not burn as intensely as vegetation that hasn't burned in 30 years, it can still move a fire very, very quickly through the area."

Coming back

Of the 18 homes destroyed in the Covenant, a few have received building permits and bulldozers are already at work. Nine more are in the permitting process, according the association's building department.

Many of the homes that burned along Zumaque and in other parts of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District had single paned windows, which could not withstand heat from vegetation burning nearby, Pavone said.

The new homes must abide by newer and stricter fire and building codes, such as installing double-paned windows, covering vents, boxing eaves, and planting fire-resistant landscaping.

"We know the homes we're building now are a little more fire-safe, a little more defensible," Pavone said.

These actions are good things for all homeowners to do, not just those adjacent to a lagoon or canyon because 60-mile-per-hour winds can send embers flying a mile ahead of the fire line, Pavone said.

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