The Lake Berryessa Fire - One Month Later

One Month Later… What just happened, WHY, and Where do we go from here?

By Evan Kilkus

Volunteer Project Coordinator, Berryessa Highlands Fire Safe Council (BHFSC)

It’s been a month, and we have all been doing a lot of digesting, discussing, stressing, being frustrated sad and/or angry. We have been wondering what is next and how do we move forward after watching a third of our neighborhood, and/or our own homes burn to the ground. I want to take some time to share some thoughts, as a Berryessa Highlands Fire Safe Council neighbor that has volunteered thousands of hours during the last decade creating 5 miles of shaded fuel break in and around our neighborhood in preparation for a forest fire. I want to share this perspective because I don’t want us to miss significant learning opportunities, and I would love to see us focus our strength on outcomes that are achievable and effective.

What Happened?

What happened is somewhat clear. Our neighborhood got slammed by a natural disaster, a predictable forest fire, but bigger than we have ever encountered. And we were not all ready enough for it. Our neighborhood, by the way, is obviously not a city suburb in the middle of a concrete jungle. We all purchased or rent homes in the middle of a forest. On the top of ridges, or the bottom of canyons. Places where nature is beautiful, and unforgiving. The views and tranquility are priceless and enjoyed year round, but they distract us from the natural threat we know exists. Forest fire. Some people take the threat very seriously, while far too many think they an do a little and be ok. What we saw was fire finding the weakest links in our homes, and burning them down.

Homes Remaining Are Homes Saved

Before we get into the frustrating and tragic details of what went wrong, it is very important to recognize and learn from what worked. There are no coincidences in our neighborhood. No standing house is there purely by luck or randomness. Each remaining home is a home saved. Each standing home represents a fight, where firefighters or neighbors stood their ground and fought flames and won. Firefighters and about 20 of our neighbors used existing defensible space to prevent our neighborhood from being wiped off the map.

If it weren’t for the thorough weed-whacking, branch pruning, and overgrown brush removal done by many of you around your homes, the fire that left your back yards black would have turned your homes to ash. I am very thankful that when flames pushed up against and into the neighborhood both days, a handful of homeowners worked independently and/or along side fire fighters to extinguish flames around all their neighbors homes. For sure those residents are the reason many homes still remain.

The significant work done the last 10 years by the Berryessa Highlands Fire Safe Council/Napa County Fire/CALFire allowed firefighters to keep the fire out of the neighborhood completely the first night. On the second day when the fire entered the neighborhood, the work done gave firefighters a lower intensity forest fire to fight, which gave them room to work to save most homes. Without the 10 years of work clearing over 150 acres of brush, our neighborhood would be gone. Despite the extremely frustrating and tragic losses in our neighborhood and Spanish Flat, and scattered around eastern Napa County, it’s worth pointing out that in our greater Berryessa region, hundreds and hundreds of homes were saved in the Berryessa Pines, Berryessa Estates, Circle Oaks, Capell Valley, Pope Valley, Angwin, and Gordon Valley. Saved by firefighters, fire safe projects, residents, ranchers, and farm workers.

Not Blame, But Why Specifically Did The Berryessa Highlands Lose So Many Homes?

While being grateful for all the help we received, I am unhappily forced to come to terms with the fact that the cards were just not in our favor for the no-loss firefight I think we always hoped for. I encourage my friends and neighbors to not be too mad, but be determined to not let this happen again. Here are some factors at the immediate local level that contributed to so much heartbreak.

- Radiant Heat From Neighbor’s House Fire – Many homes coulda/woulda/shoulda made it, but their neighbors houses were on fire for reasons listed below, and the radiant heat caused quick ignition. It pains me to say this, but it needs to be said first, because it really sucks to see my friends homes burn down when they did all they could to make their homes defendable, but their neighbors did not.

- Old Building Design – This is why many homes caught fire so quickly in our neighborhood. Many of our homes are made with wood siding full of wood pecker holes, and/or have old vents that may even be broken. Flames and embers went right into our attics and basements, and ignited our homes in a matter of seconds or minutes. Also, old dried out wood decks and wood fences captured heat, embers, and rolling debris, and caused lots of homes to quickly ignite.

- Significant or Semi-Significant Lack of Defensible Space –This is the number one cause for homes burning unnecessarily in our neighborhood, often lighting the adjoining homes on fire too. Too many people didn’t do 100’ of weed whacking. People had huge bushes or junipers in their yards below their homes. People had excessive wood, decking, sheds, stuff piles, fencing, and/or furniture up against their homes. The information about defensible space has been put in front of all neighbors over and over. ReadyForWildfire.org for example. It is up to homeowners to read it/understand it/most important - DO IT!

The BHFSC and Napa Fire Marshal’s office have spent so much time trying to “educate” homeowners that I believe there are no excuses for “not knowing”. We all know. We just don’t all choose to take thorough action based on a nonchalant attitude.

- The Weakest Link – Of the examples above, sometimes you can do everything almost perfect, but all it takes is one small fire up against your house for it to be gone. I watched a stucco house that almost weathered the firestorm ignite because a firewood pile placed 5’ away was on fire and fell over, catching the corner of the house on fire. If we want to live in a forest and be ready for forest fires, it means taking EVERY step we know, and learning from tragedies like this and making ourselves the most fire resilient. 100% on your home hardening checklist is worth it. We must plan for this to happen again.

- Firefighting Resources – This is based on what I witnessed, and what we all now know in terms of how unprecedented this fire was. We had enough resources the first night to luckily deflect this wind-driven fire. The next morning when Pleasants Valley Road was on fire, Fairfield and Vacaville and Berryessa Pines and Berryessa Estates were still being encroached upon by direct flames, central command fire chiefs left us with 5 fire engines hoping that would be ok. They moved the five trucks to Headlands Drive as they had a lot of work still to do to keep the fire out of Arroyo Grande and Headlands. By 10 AM, the fire jumped the line between Black Oak Lane and Parkview Lane and started burning into our neighborhood west of/below Rimrock.

The LNU Lightning Complex fire was so big there were simply no fire trucks sitting around to send to us. For us to get more trucks meant they had to pull them away from other areas and let them burn. They sent us about 20 more trucks as fast as they could that morning/afternoon, but flames were moving fast and many homes were hard to defend or not defendable, so firefighters struggled and worked their butts off fighting fire where they could.

At that point the sky was so smoky that planes could not get into our neighborhood. More helicopters would have been nice, but 1,000,000 acres had burned in the bay area at that point. Tens of thousands of homes were threatened. Yes, more aircraft and trucks in the state would have helped, but in any and all cases of forest fire, “enough” firefighting resources are never a guarantee. This is simply what happened. Not justification, or acceptance, or blame. It just is what it is.

- Water Supply – I bring this up because I think it is being misunderstood by many neighbors, and I feel it played the least significant role in the loss of homes. From what I saw, all fire hydrants worked until the tank/water supply was drained, which was after 6 PM. Our 500,000 gallon tank ran dry only toward the end if the firefight, after 70+ homes had burned down. Each burned home was spewing water, and at 1,000 gallons per minute per fire hose, hours of firefighting that day used up hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. I have to say… if all neighbors simply had defendable homes as required, we wouldn’t have run out.

Every rural community across America has water quantity limitations based on cost of infrastructure and desire to pay to upgrade. Our neighborhood was put in with a basic water system that is 60 years old. So maybe it’s due for some upgrades. The question is, do the ratepayers want to/can we pay for it?

Where Do We Go From Here As Residents?

If your home burned down, the frank question being asked is do you rebuild? That of course is a personal decision based on lots of things. I know that financially, many neighbors will not be rebuilding simply due to insufficient insurance and cost of building. From the forest fire safety perspective that we are now left with, I would say if you can bear the stress of fires, rebuilding with several precautions can be sensible. New building codes require homes to be very resistant to fires, 50+ years of brush accumulation in the hills around us is now gone, and hopefully all residents now understand the threat and will maintain their landscapes and homes, minimizing the severity of future fires. Homeowners insurance availability, or a lack thereof, is a big problem that might make rebuilding cost prohibitive. High priced policies or low damage coverage policies seem to be the only options. In a perfect world this is going to get better, but for now I really don’t have an answer as to what people will have in terms of options when/if they rebuild.

If you have a home that hasn’t burned, we need to adapt and learn from this serious situation and take steps to make our homes more capable of resisting a wildfire. When we skip critical steps, we acknowledge we are gambling with our homes, and the homes of our neighbors. Defensible space and home hardening… start with everything easy and/or cheap. Then do the more expensive upgrades you can manage. Go to ReadyForWildfire.org and do everything. If you are not clear and you need help with your checklist, call CAL Fire, or even give me a call and I will point out every upgrade you need to do.

Adding sprinklers is a very important point. Several homes in the neighborhood had various types of basic yard sprinklers either previously mounted or set out last minute on decks and/or roofs. These sprinklers soaked wood, grass, and everything in range, and without a doubt helped save several homes in the neighborhood during this fire.

The commercial grade system at my house was the equivalent of having several firefighters and hundreds of feet of hose and 10 trucks worth of water, all operated by levers and just me. I think a sprinkler system is a must have for every home in the forest. It is no guarantee, but water on an area that has great defensible space can save your home.

Support the Berryessa Highlands Fire Safe Council. If you live in another region, support your local Fire Safe Council or local defensible space projects. If you’re a landowner, encourage the work on your land. If you’re a homeowner, donate a bit of cash, or get your employer to donate $1,000 or more. Community wide-defensible space projects may save your home like they saved homes in our neighborhood, Berryessa Estates, and Circle Oaks.

Thoughts On Room For Improvement With Infrastructure And Resources

The following concepts have been brought up in the past, and considering 95 homes burned down in our neighborhood, it is worth discussing them briefly as possible areas to invest millions to help save our $100,000,000 in homes.

- Evacuation Advisory – The first thing I want to point out is the cheapest (free) and easiest to fix. A small but significant thing that has not gone right during this fire or the Atlas Fire was the evacuation warning process. In both fires, our neighborhood never received an evacuation advisory. We just got a mandatory evacuation as the fire was entering Steele Canyon. Both times the fire jumped their lines miles and miles away, and despite predictable movement our direction, the leaders at whatever fire HQ did not let our community know that there was a possible approaching problem a few hours out.

Considering we are the biggest community in East Napa, with 1,000 residents, I would really like to see more communication for such a large group of people. I shouldn’t have to be the one warning my neighbors every time. Many of our neighbors really don’t know “how bad is it” when a fire is 5 miles away. If the county does not communicate until the very last second with us, then residents will never know when they need to be on guard.

- Updated Realistic Approach to Resident Firefighting

As much as I want the Fire Department to be there for me and each one of my 250 neighbors’ homes, I know that cannot always be the case. In an era when millions of Californians have moved their homes to forests, I might dare to say there will often not be enough fire trucks for everyone. I most certainly don’t want to encourage people to stay home and risk dying to defend a non-defendable home. But frankly, if you create thorough defensible space, and you want a home in the forest with an amazing lake view and no crime, you might need to have a (proper/safe) plan to stay and defend your own home if you are capable and willing.

In an unmanaged forest, fire can be crazy dangerous and unpredictable. But our neighborhood has had so much defensible space work done in and around it that the last 3 fires have shown that it can be defended when some residents stay behind. Twenty years ago, most residents in the Highlands had a plan, tools, and training to defend their own homes. This might sound crazy, but I wish we could do the same thing today. I probably cannot really suggest that, but as you know, my personal plan is to do just that.

- More Effective Volunteer Fire Department

In a perfect world we would have 10 or 20 neighbors as members of the Napa County Volunteer Fire Department. A few of them would be able to drive the truck in our fire station, and at least one person would be here that knows how to fight a fire with our neighborhood layout, fire breaks, terrain, and vegetation. The problem is the only way to be a volunteer firefighter is to be medically, rescue, auto accident, house fire and wildfire trained. It takes such a commitment that most all are not able to do it, and those that can pull it off, are not able to donate the additional weeks of time to be able to drive the truck.

So, currently we have a fire truck with no driver, and no one in the neighborhood that can respond directly to a fire. If this needs to be changed at the state or county level, it clearly needs to change. If there is no change and we can’t get more official volunteers, then resident firefighting or paid firefighters are needed.

- Staffed Fire Station – A staffed fire station is requested and demanded by many neighbors at this point. Staffed fire stations are always wanted everywhere, but costs often prohibit them. But maybe it’s time. I do want to point out that while our local volunteer and staffed Capell Valley Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched elsewhere when the flames hit our neighborhood last month, during the 2018 Steele Fire, they showed up in force and saved the homes on Woodhaven Ct. They were amazing. They fanned out with 4 trucks and helped save a dozen homes. When they are available, local volunteer and paid FD is a fantastic defense, and we love and appreciate them for always doing everything they can!

- More Fire Fighting Equipment – More helicopters, airplanes, and fire trucks would clearly be helpful. We don’t need 10 times the aircraft, but maybe let’s get real serious and invest in our fleet and personnel to run it all. Again, it comes down to how much money we want the government to spend. These investments can come from the county or state level, and might be able to be justified when you consider the cost of recent wildfires, and value of all the remaining and future homes.

- Water System Upgrade – Clearly we could always use more water for firefighting. The most important thing to clarify though is who is going to pay for it. Every water system in California is strictly ratepayer funded. So if we want an upgraded tank or hydrants or alternate water supply we have to pay for it. Demanding the county taxpayers to pay for an upgraded system for our neighborhood is not too realistic because then every other neighborhood in the county would demand the same thing.

Most fire grants out there specifically do not cover infrastructure improvements, so we can’t just hope we can get someone to pay for it for us. We technically bought into a neighborhood with water system limitations, like everyone else. That is no one’s problem but us. That said, if we want to pay for it, I think another half million gallon water tank could probably be bought and installed for less than 5 or 10 million dollars. Or an independent pump and pipeline to a dedicated water supply by our fire station could maybe be done in the same range. Again… it all depends on how much we want to be ok with it as is, vs. how much we need it to be upgraded. The discussion should be had, the concepts should be priced out, and maybe it just needs to be voted on as a water bond.

- Forest Management – Last but not least. I bring this up last because this is not a local problem needing resolved thanks to the Berryessa Highlands Fire Safe Council. But it is a regional and state level change of mentality that needs to be encouraged strongly from the local level up. I’m not going to go into what it is as many people get the point of thinning and managing forests lands, but the bottom line is the only way to help manage small and large scale forest fires of the future is to dedicate money and resources to controlled burns and fire breaks. 350,000 acres just burned around us, giving us a pretty clean slate. Now it is up to fire planners & leaders to maintain healthy forests from here on out.

I hope this breakdown helps all neighbors understand the gist of what happened. The simple story is there was a fire and homes burned. But in order to prevent this from happening again in our neighborhood, and to help others in other neighborhoods, we have to dive a bit deeper. And despite how long this document is, it is really just a summary. Now it’s up to all of us to follow up and do things about it. Do our defensible space. Get additional resources and plans in place to be prepared for the inevitable. No complaining or excuses. County of Napa… State of California… you too! Time to do your part as the government and catch up. It’s 2020. We know we live in a forest, in an era of mega-fires. Time to act like it. Because watching so many of my best friends homes burn down is not anything I ever want to experience again.

 

https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/exterior-fire-sprinklers-saved-188-properties-wet-homes-dont-burn/

 

https://wildfiretoday.com/documents/Outdoor_sprinkler_systems_effectiveness.pdf

 

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pKilkus@gmail.com                       © Peter Kilkus 2020