Thursday, August 7, 2014

Should Firefighters be expected to save Homes which are located in fire trap geography and where the owner cared less about landscape hygiene ?

Image: NBC San Diego
The above photo was taken up in the Coronado Hills above San Marcos back in the middle of May 2014 when the Cocos Fire erupted during one of the earliest heat waves driven by abnormal unseasonal Santa Ana Winds. I actually watched this fire creep up to this place on the Live News from NBC's helicopter. In the beginning, there was only a small spot fire, but it was headed towards these dead Aleppo Pines which the owner didn't bother to chop down. These trees went up like giant Roman Candles and from the vantage point of the helicopter, you could see 1000s of embers breaking free from these dead dried Aleppo Pines which exploded high up into the air spreading spot fires on both sides of this house & beyond that is pictured there behind the fire. These trees actually made the fire worse and prolonged it's life at the risk to firefighters on the ground. From the live News feeds you could see there were firefighters up around the driveway next to the house at the top, which is not surprising since heroics is part of most firefighter's nature anyway. But fortunately their commanders who had a better vantage point to survey the conditions ordered them to get out of there quickly. Luckily the house at the top of the hill was spared, but not the one closest to those trees. It should also be noted that there are some situations where homes with vast amounts of acreage that have home owners who clearly could have cared less about their landscape's lack of hygiene or landscape neatness which deserve to be left to chance. So should anyone consider such  properties really worth any firefighter's life for the sake of saving  material possessions ? Personally I say no. There is a vast difference in putting one's life on the line for them personally or saving their possessions. Houses can be replaced, but a firefighter who is a father, mother, son, daughter, friend etc cannot be replaced. This wasn't the only poor example up in those hills either, but it's an outstanding example of what I mean. For example, I saw multiple disease infested Oleander hedge rows used as a privacy barrier to outsiders which were mostly brown and dead. This phenomena with Oleanders isn't new. The blight attacking them has been spreading for years in Southern California, even Cal Trans has removed many median hedge barriers. Take the example below which as it was a couple years ago. Today it is almost totally yellow/brown & dead.

Google Earth
This photo from Google Earth is at the end of my mother's street across from Pepper Drive School in El Cajon California. This is at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. I neglected to take a photo on the very day we came back to Sweden the first week of July 2014, but not only is this exact same hedge almost totally brown and dead, but foxtail grasses which have been mowed down in the above photo, are two foot high leading clear up to this same hedge which is now almost totally dead. Now this location is an easier defensive position, but many places with such flammable landscape components in many remote property areas are in more fire trap locations where homes should have been allowed to be built in the first place. Of course never underestimate the power of future tax revenues when permits are issued. Now take a fast look at another fire which burned down in Lakeside at the very same week as the Cocos & Carlsbad Fires.

Image by Billy Ortiz Lakeside California Old Hwy 80 & Aurora Drive
When my wife and I flew into Southern California, we came during a period of intense heat and Santa Ana winds which are more characteristic of Sept/Oct/Nov. San Marcos, Carlsbad, Rancho Bernardo and Camp Pendleton were raging with fires. But a much smaller fire exploded further down south in Lakeside near old Hwy 80 & Los Coches Road. Oddly enough, I wrote exactly about this very spot where numerous dead and dying Eucalyptus could be found everywhere and the potential for future wildfire catastrophe. Low and behold lookie how accurate that prophecy came true. I wrote about this exact location back on May 29th, 2013 of last year and the issues regarding Red Gum Lerp infested Eucalyptus which seem to be everywhere and nobody taking any notice or actions to remove them. This would also include the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido: 
It's the Lerp Psyllid's fault ? So ? And ? (Nature takes the hit again in blame game) 

Image: Billy Ortiz - Fire along old Hwy 80 & Aurora Drive May 2014
Here again above is the wildfire as photographed by Billy Ortiz of Lakeside/El Cajon. Below here I drove by and took photos of the wildfire's aftermath. Both sides of the Highway were burned which means embers easily made it to the other side no doubt helped by winds burning dead Eucalyptus branches and twigs which exploded when the fire torched them. The very tall dead eucalyptus seen in Billy Ortiz's photo no doubt facilitated the fire's spread when it exploded into the atmosphere and carried along by the unseasonal Santa Ana Winds at that time of year. Fortunately they got the fire out, but it could have been much worse.

Photo Mine

Highway Eight Business Route, olde 80 & Aurora Drive

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This is the east side of old Highway route 80

Photo Mine

These next two photos are of the west side of
Old Hwy Route 80

Photo Mime
Now Back to Coronado Hills & the Landscape
My Son and other family members of mine have a house up in those Coronado Hills on Cycad Drive which was very much in the News. In fact, their house specifically was the focus of attention on the News during this firestorm. They lost three sheds, a truck, their  gazebo, and the back eve's of the house were burnt. Below is a News 8 team's 4:00 minute video of the fire moving up the opposite side of the canyon where the camera vantage point was right on Coronado Hills drive on the west side. The fire moves right up through their backyard which is on the east side of this heavily vegetated Canyon. Oddly enough, they did have a considerable firebreak on the north and west sides, but the neighbour to the south had a huge forest of giant Bamboo, which by the way has sprung back to life.

 From the very start of the video above to the 30 second mark, you can actually see the Coulter Pine my Son and I planted over a decade ago and I've written about in the past. The Cocos Fire never really burned the tree, as we had a lot of clearance right down to the bare soil all around this tree. But it took everything else around that tree. The tree itself was scorched by the intense heat. Like the tree, the house was miraculously spared with only the interior window blinds being melted inside, along with some exterior roofing. If you look very closely at the photo below here of the branch end tips, they still have life in them and are green. This happened in the 1982 with many of the Jeffrey and Coulter pine in the Mountain Center Fire. Many trees which looked dead were merely experiencing needle scorch. They sprang back to life and today a younger forest which was helped along by chaparral that was left intact and not interfered with for doing it's job of Sapling encouragement. Notice the green interior of the pine bud above ? Now look below at the branch ends of the young scorched Coulter Pine.

Image Mine

Image - J Santino 2013
Once again, the photo above here is of the Coulter Pine that by all appearances and logic seems a lost cause. But take closer note of the still viable greeen bud material at all the tips. This tree was not so much burned as heat scortched. Here on the right is what this Coulter Pine looked like when I photographed it in 2013, one year prior to this fire in the Spring of 2014. But after the intense heat of the Cocos Wildfire up that canyon where Coronado Hills Drive winds back and forth on the other side, the brown needles appear to signal the death knell for this young Coulter. But all is not lost as I've just updates a year later from a photograph I received from the property owner here below. One big mstake many people make is immediate removal of all dead looking material in the landscape, but be patient for a few months and see what and where plants sprout back to life.
 Brilliant Update May 11, 2015 Coulter Pine Survival Status

Photo - Jeannette Santino (2015)

Never ever underestimate the power of life regeneration after fire when conventional wisdom convinces you all is lost. Now take a close look at some other interesting feature plant components within their landscape. For example, most folks here know of or have at least seen Sea Fig which has naturalized down along the SoCal beach coastlines or commonly used along SoCal Freeways. We also call them iceplant and they seem like such a perfect fit in a wildfire prone area's landscape. You may need to rethink that.

Image Mine

The above photo is of what use to be the bank's Sea Fig Ice Plant which burned like anything else on the property. In fact the immediate garden or landscape was surrounded by massive amounts of this plant which skirted the entire canyon side of the landscape. While it has the appearance of being the prefect fire barrier for it's seeming water storage capacity, what most folks don't often realize about all ice plants is that they have a heavy dead thatch building up underneath their top green exterior. I cannot find the News video, but one News outlet was showing firefighters during mopping up operations on some properties which had smoking and smoldering ice plant which had heavy thatch underneath the seeming protective mass of green water storage plants. Nothing is a guarantee if weather conditions are right. He are some more shots of the Sea Fig below.
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Looking west from property across
the canyon at Coronado Hills Drive

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Take a close look at these next two photographs below here. Both are of two different locations in their front yard which wasn't at all a part of the direct hit frontal attack from the fire coming up the canyon, but there were spot fires from embers. This is where landscape tidiness is imperative, but not always a guarantee. It's just the way things are. Blowing sparks and embers can find their way anywhere.

Photo Mine
Both of these photos tell a story of fire defense spaces. The one above was where a Manzanita with the usual amount of natural dander [mulch] underneath it branches once stood. Now I like dander underneath my native landscape plants, that's the way things work in Nature, but fire will find these spots and ignite a fire, just so you know. The other one below has succulents which had their own version of dead older leaves and thatch underneath. The main reason you'd never take notice of such older dead material is because the overall top cover was always pretty and green to the eye. It mirrors the very same deceptive problems common with the Ice Plant banks. But where ever dead thatch is present, wind blown embers are sure to find. BTW the homeowners mentioned in the property above did have a well maintained clean landscape, but nothing is a guarantee when it comes to poor location.

Photo Mine
Below here now is another interesting example of a landscape tree in the same neighbourhood which looks to have been enveloped by the intense heat which turned the needles brown like the Coulter Pine in the backyard. You can tell that the fire never actually touched this tree, otherwise we wouldn't be viewing anything in the way of pine needles now. In actual fact I have been told that this tree is still alive and well, although it's tough to view it that way from this photo. Canary Island pines are tough and one of the few to sprout back from the truck and branches after going through a forest fire. But fire prone areas even on the Canary Island are what this tree is adapted well to. I love Canary Island Pines, in fact so much that I traveled to the Canary Islands to see them in their natural habitat to see and view just how they live. Incredibly as tough & drought resistant as they are, I don't think I'd recommend them for rural properties with wildfire hazard potential. The main reason is that of all pines I have ever dealt with, they are the most intense producers of Pine Straw thatch on the ground below themselves. Their pine straw also completely coats and smothers other shrubs underneath them which makes those plants more prone to catching fire.

Photo Mine
When I was landscape head gardener in San Diego, we had numerous Canary Island Pines around the pool and clubhouse area. It was an almost daily chore to deal with the massive amounts of needles that were shed almost every single day. Below gives you an idea of the overwhelming task of maintaining under these Canary Island Pine trees. And yet I admire them greatly. They are beautiful and tough survivors and if you don't mind the regular maintenance, then by all means utilize them in your landscape. But be forewarned of their fire encouraging potential if you don't clean up after them. 
Brilliant Update - March 2015 Canary Island Pine Survival Status

Photo - Jeannette Santino (2015)
Once again, this homeowner was in a hurry to clean up. They assumed the this Canary Island Pine was a lost cause. Under normal circumstances with many trees and shrubs, this might be true, but almost never with this species of pine tree. Now the tree has been sadly topped and for no good reasons than mere assumptions. The only winner here was the tree trimming company who made out like a bandit with the cash.

David Lange, Santa Barbara California

Below here is my trip to the Canary Island of Tenerife. The photograph was taken inside the ancient super volcanic caldera which collapsed in on itself and formed this massive several miles across in diameter enclosed valley. A later pyramid shaped volcano developed and is actually to the right, but out of the picture below. What fascinated me is the almost absence of any other shrubs on the slopes with the exception of this tree in pure stands. The forest floor under these trees was heavily littered with Canary Island pine needles which was extremely dense and thick. They tend to cover up and soften the geological ruggedness of the fractured volcanic soil landscape which then better allows for rain to soak in and percolate. Very little run off here from what I observed with no riparian vegetation that I could ever see in most of the washes and canyons on the island. When I maintained the landscape at the Mobile Home Park in El Cajon which was one of the properties our company maintained, it was always a chore to clean up needles off of all the shrubs and even within the entire Chainlink fencing which surrounded the pool deck area. This alone should give clues as to the present danger of fire ignition possibilities when maintenance lacks around these trees. Again, I'm not against Canary Island Pines, but Just Say'in.

Photo Mine (Tenerife 2012)

image mine: 2014 SD Safari Park
My favourite Pine for the rural landscape would be a Torrey Pine over a Canary Island Pine. The reason is they don't have as dense a needles production and their heavier needle bundles will fall through Chaparral easier than the lighter longer Canary Island Pine needles which will float and land on top of the shrub. When they are young they will tend to be long and leggy as you see here in the photograph I took of a staked young Torrey Pine at the San Diego Safari Park near Escondido. In the wild it's the large Chaparral Scrub which not only provides and nurtures these trees with water and nutrients, but also provide them with the natural mechanical staking that we do otherwise in our urban landscapes artificially with wooden or steel posts and ties. From a moderate to light wildfire perspective, they could endure much better because they have a much cleaner smoother bark and trunk than many other pines and they'll merely shed their lower branches with any heat or smoke damage. The smoke and heat even further prunes them naturally into a more clean streamlined tall look far above the ground. I had an experience with this in the photograph below when I lived up in Anza California. Those are the first Torrey Pines I planted back in 1986.

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Torrey Pines - Anza California, Burnt Valley Road

When the four Torrey Pines were as tall as the one pictured in the Safari Park photo above, there was a rather large Hedgehog Cactus at the bottom of this back below where that was is now. There were foxtail grasses which were only 5 or 6 inches high, but they had grown into the cactus spines and it was a tedious stickery job to get them out. Thinking I had a clever idea [please do not try this stupid dumb stunt at home], I decided one late night after the neighbourhood was in bed, to strike a match and take care of the foxtails cleanly. Didn't happen. The long large spines of the cactus caught fire, created a rather large high flame which in turn created it's own powerful stiff breeze which swished the lower Torrey Pine branches back and forth till it finally died down. The next morning I came out and found the cactus a total loss and though the Torrey Pine branches didn't burn, they did turn brown. Eventually those lower branches never came back and actually died. I had to prune them. Not all chaparral fires burn up through the Scrub canopy. Many small fires if conditions are right will burn the undergrowth only. I saw this several times in Anza where the weather conditions with high humidity and little wind allowed lightning fires to only burn chaparral understory. Even still, maintenance is a must for fire protection and defensible space and everyone in the rural areas should get this. 
Further Update: Monday 25, August 2014
The headlines everywhere read, "Small Actions can Reduce Wildfire Risks" and along with it the latest favourite poster child photo of a house that escaped because of it's landscaping. Well, that's only partially correct. Wind direction and luck played a bigger role.

AP File Photo Taylor Bridge Fire

USA Today
Lately there has been a reemergence of a double before and after photograph [above] of a house on a hillside above Bettas Road near Cle Elum Washington during the Taylor Bridge Fire which doesn't exactly tell the whole. The upper photo shows a roaring fire about ready to pounce on a helpless looking house. The lower photo gives the impression that the clever smart landscaping of the homeowners is what saved the day. The lower photo shows a completely blackened area which that raging fire consumed all around the home. While the landscaping was fairly clean and neat, those pictures and the story told in the articles don't reveal or expose the truth of the matter. You see, all but one [USA Today] news journal left out another important photo which reveals the fire wasn't as bad as first photographed. It was burning down hill and against the wind direction. The photo at the above right here shows a completely subdued slow moving fire with no firetrucks or firemen saving the day. What saved this house was the weather conditions more than anything else. Believe it or not I actually wrote about this exact fire and the circumstances back in August 2012 and yet still the incomplete story still prevails today:
Modern Day Megafires: Understanding Some Basic Fundamentals for Survival

In summing up, there are a couple of things rural homeowners need to come to grips with here. First, if you choose a high profile view lot, then you have chosen a wildfire magnet which wants to drive uphill. That's the nature of what most all fires will do. It's called physics. Fires thrive on defying gravity. You should also chose a property that is not a fire trap. The photo to the right here is in San Diego County California and is located behind the Sheriff Sub-Station on San Felipe Road or S-2. It has an impossible access with no escape route. I asked my brother in nearby Ranchita about this lot and nobody seems to know what they owners has in mind here.  If the person chooses to build and  to live here, then they should  be prepared to accept the financial property loss consequences and do NOT expect firefighters to be heroes and save your dream home by quite possibly sacrificing their lives literally. Many will try and save it anyway, because that's in their nature to rescue people and their material possessions. But j just don't take advantage of this. Even on my property in Anza, I always knew being at the top of a knoll with a fantastic 180 degree view also brought inevitable consequences which I accepted. Also, you need to understand there is no such thing as fire resistant landscapes. Everything organic under the right conditions will burn. Some do have more volatile oils than others, but everything burns, even the cryptonite immune ice plant on steroids burns. In southern California I have always found the Natives do the best under the climate conditions that exist there. Many non-natives will stress and partially die at best without constant water availability. But mostly you will have to accept the inevitable when and where you choose to live. With climate change and urban environments, there is no guarantee as we have seen on the News.
Update August 25, 2014
Lincoln Bramwell, US Forest Service Historian: “Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge”


  1. I agree that many property owners need to do much more, and have NO excuse when they have the means. Some of my neighbors hereabouts don't have the means, though, when giant oaks die almost overnight due to beetle damage - it's expensive getting a tree like that cut down and chopped up. I see a kind of perfect storm of (more) wildfire on our horizon here in the Cuyamacas with a combination of the drought, new non-native tree-killers like the Gold-spotted Oak Borer, and minimal funds for clearing dead wood from the Cedar Fire (and there is a ton of it, especially in the nearby state park, but also on private lands), to name a few factors adding to the fuel load. And climate change isn't going to help. We are trying to be as ready as possible with our external sprinkler system, fire hose and clearing around the house!

    1. When I last visited Anza this past June 2014, I couldn't believe the terrible way most people manage their properties. Of course everything they plant are exotics which completely fail or simply look horrible in struggle mode. Natives for that region because of it's unusual dryness are the best. Unfortunately even the natives are struggling up there.

  2. ah interesting! In the Western Cape we don't have firescaping rules. But we are busy removing invasive aliens - Port Jackson wattle, Eucalyptus and pine trees.

    We were in mountain fires when we lived in Camps Bay on the slopes of Table Mountain. When you've once seen a pine tree blazing like a torch ... it reinforces my chosen plant indigenous for biodiversity style of gardening. We walked on the hiking track the day after the fire, and found firewatchers on duty overnight, as the STUMPS and roots of the pines were still burning.

    1. Yes, I would imagine Bushfires would also be an issue where you are located. We have many invasive ruderals [annuals] which grow abundantly and can actually change a soil system from a mycorrhizal one to a bacterial system. Actually without many of the invasives weeds and other non-native grasses, chaparral alone does not allow as much fire spread as in previous times. What hurts now are the extreme flammable grasses and extreme weather events which were never a problem in the past. Also the worst fires we've had were almost always human caused. But many people where I come from place themselves in dangerous fire trap locations and untidy landscaping which exacerbates the situation. I just couldn't see firefighters saving my former place which was picture perfect for me, but on a hilltop where most fires from any direction head towards if wind direction is favourable for that. Even still, my place though having Shrubs and Trees was very tidy, but still not worth a man or woman's life. I can always replace possessions, but not return someone's life.


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