May 5-9 2009







     Tuesday, May 5th around 1:30pm the fire began several miles north west of my home in a place called the Jesusita Trailhead.  This trail serves the lower portions of the San Roque canyon and many use it to enjoy our wildland areas.  All of our canyons have trails for hikers and mountain bikers to enjoy the habitat and the beautiful vistas one sees climbing up in elevation to Catheral Peak in the center of the picture.  That smoke is two ridges and three dainages away from the canyon rim where my home sits, about 130 yards behind the canyon rim where this image below was taken overlooking Las Canoas Canyon.

I watched for a day as fixed and rotary winged aircraft lay rows upon rows of retardant just beneath that smoke as the fire was moving uphill.  The strategy being that a fire can't burn back down through an already burnt area. (see image below)

Some hours later, the fire moved even further away and was now just beneath the ridge going up to the top of Cathedral peak.

When the mandatory evacuation notice came some hours later, my wife and I were already well into our evacuation plan having just gone through this phase six month's earlier when the Tea Fire swept through the canyons to the east of us and did not burn down into our canyon.

I learned a lot from that fire and made a few changes especially relating to clearing any loose debris (leaves) from around every single corner of the house and start hosing down these spots where debris collects to inhibit fire growth.  I also applied thermo-gel to these areas to keep them wet.

By 5pm, my wife left with her car loaded and went to Sally and Michael's house in Montecito.  I stayed behind and continued preparing our house.

I laid out 100 feet of 2" fire hose on the west side of our property, and another 100 feet along the north side.  The eastern third of our property below our barn is all hardscape covered with a variety of succulents my wife Amy enjoys collecting and planting around our home.  Rocks don't burn and I was focused on the most likely point of approach.  

As night fell, the fire continued to glow in the distance, seemingly no threat.  I spent the night listening to the voices of the firemen over my scanners and watched as huge flames burst over the tops of the ridges lighting up the hills.  The only way to get accurate information was from the radio transmissions of the firemen and chiefs.  The media was worthless as you would expect and never really communicated any real information of any use to anyone in the affected area.  Local news media basically spent two days repeating the same evacuation warnings.

In the morning the fire was still there near the middle of the mountains.  They seemed to be making some progress keeping it from dropping down into the populated areas.

A year ago, planning for just this event, I had our gas powered water pump rebuilt and marveled as it can pump 135 gallons a minute.  As I pulled on the cord to start it up, it froze solid.  That was somewhat of a twist on my plan, but I continued to prepare.

An hour later, I decided to take the pump portion of the device apart to see if it might have been rusted.  It wasn't and not being mechanically inclined (I like wires) went over to Andorra, a large property at the end of our ridge and asked if someone there knew how to possibly fix the pump.  They said they'd give it a try and came by to pick it up.




Around 3:30, as my friend Charles and I stood watching across Los Canoas canyon, the smoke stopped rising.  Within minutes the mountains were obscured as the smoke was now moving toward us, south.  It was time to leave.

My camper was already loaded and waiting on the street.  My plan was to stay at the house and defend it provided I had the time to prepare and firemen were in the area.  Within an hour the wind picked up with 35-40mph gusts and smoke and red glow was filling the sky.  I hadn't seen any flames yet but I knew they were on the way.  The phone rang, another reverse 911 call. Time to go.

As I drove downhill toward the roadblocks, I realized I left something behind that I had to retrieve.  I parked the van at the roadblock and started back on foot toward my house. No go, the arm of the law said no.  Pleading with him, I said "I just got it this past Sunday!".  Just then a small pickup approached, identified himself as a volunteer firemen and I was on my way back to the house.  While driving up with his dog on my lap, he told me to sneak up after the firestorm because most houses burn down from secondary fires as embers continue to spread.

As I raced up my driveway toward the garage, there was the pump.  I pulled on the cord and it was fixed.  That changed things, or did it.  A moment's thought, and now seeing flames to the northeast, I was in the other car driving away.

Now I had two vehicles to shuttle downhill and out of the danger zone.  I drove lower down on the Riviera to Jeff's house and he drove me the short distance up to where I had the c4s parked.  We looked uphill to see a red glowing sky with flames clearly visible at the top of our ridge.

As we drove away I stopped at our local fire station and gave them my address and told them about the equipment I had laid out and the preparation I had made on my home.  

They said they'd do what they could.







Nothing left to do but join my wife at Michael and Sally's and hope for the best.  We have a home monitoring system that would call my office if the smoke alarm sounded.  I called the alarm company several times that evening, each time no alarm had been triggered.

Around 9pm I called fire station 15 to see if they might have some information about my house.  They said they were in the back yard and had put out our trees and saved the house!  They said the barn had burned as well as some fences.  Unfortunately, they also said our neighbor's home had been lost.

I slept well that evening believing that the worst was over.  

Early the next morning, I got a phone call from Susan, Charles' wife, who told me that they had hiked up to our house and said there were smokes and fires all around.

I immediately got in the car and took off.  I managed to avoid the road blocks and drove up a bicycle trail through a local park to get to an access road that led to our area.  Arriving at my house I was relieved to see it ok, but as Susan had said, there were small fires everywhere.

Here a view of my collapsed barn, looking west across the back of my home.




I started up my fire pump and began putting water on the fires still burning on my property.  Randy, one of our neighbors to the east, was trying to put out the remaining fires on the house that had burned.  I pulled one of my fire houses over the fence, started my pump, and we put out that fire as well.  

My neighbor's field that the fire burned across to get to me.  I pumped water for 1.5 hours on his land to put out the wood chips on his property that were all burning.




The pine tree caught fire but was put out within minutes by a fireman who was thankfully in the area.




North east view.  The mountains in the background burned all the way to the top and over.




Here you can see blistered paint and thermo-gel that I had applied to the house prior to leaving. The thermo-gel very likely prevented this wall from catching fire.




Looking east across my pool.  The pump was part of my fire system that I had put together some years back and included 250 feet of 2 inch fire hose. I stretched this hose along the north and western portions of my property which were the likely points of risk.  I operated this pump for 5.5 hours at a rate of 135 gallons per minute (44,500 gallons!).  During the second night of the fire, firemen arrived around 8:30pm to inform me that the canyon to the north of my house (about 130 yards away) had reignited due to a second day of extremely high downslope winds.

Upon seeing my equipment, the firemen said "this is a BIG help" and quickly connected my pump to their pumper truck supplying them with high pressure water for the 500+ feet of hose they laid out.  For 3.5 hours they battled the canyon fire preventing it from spreading over the top and down into our neighborhood.  Exhausted at around 11pm, they spent the night on the lawn.




More thermo-gel that I had applied to stop the heat from catching the roof on fire.  You can see the heat blistering.




The field to the north just in front of the canyon rim.




Looking east across my burned out barn.








Another view to the east.




Looking north.




 Before/After the fire looking north. Just move your mouse curser on and off the image.

It's astonishing to see the extent of the deforestation.