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October 23, 2012 Previous day Next day

Five years ago at this time, San Diego County was under siege by a large and destructive wildfire – the Witch Creek/Guejito Fire complex would ultimately destroy more than 1,600 structures in October and November of 2007. I accompanied a video crew from Boston to obtain footage of damaged and undamaged homes, and to document what I could to try to make sense of the events that had led to such destruction.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also had staff on scene from their fire research division focusing on wildland/urban interface fire. NIST researcher Alex Maranghides was initiating the first steps of intensive post-fire investigation and analysis in a specific portion of a subdivision that would lead to an important report on these fires and further study by NIST and its partners.

Our team caught up with Alex on scene in the subdivision, a community characterized by wide, paved roads, large homes, and a great deal of home destruction. We spent more than an hour on one lot,IMG_1256 fascinated by the green lawn on one side of the completely destroyed home, and the green, undisturbed brushy vegetation on the upslope to the home. We observed the blasted trees that showed the worst burning on the house-facing sides. Very large embers lay in the well-kept grass (my foot shows the scale). If it wasn't the grass or brush that caused this home to burn, what was it?IMG_1245

Other houses. The huge chunks of burned material that had flown through the air were once part of someone else's roof, or siding, or even insulation from an attic. When they landed in the green, watered lawn, they self-extinguished – no fuel for the fire there. When they landed in gutters or a deck or piled up next to the garage wall…another story. Once the house ignited, it burned for hours. In a fire as big and broad as this complex, there was no way for fire fighters to defend each home. The simultaneous exposure of dozens of homes to wildfire (NIST's study calculates 22 houses per hour were burning at the height of the event in this subdivision) meant that traditional fire defense simply could not work.

I had a million questions for Alex, but I also felt like I was suddenly inside a virtual textbook of "how homes ignite." I'd been learning about this phenomenon since 1998 through Firewise workshops, through watching Jack Cohen's DVD (Wildfire! Preventing Home Ignitions) and by sitting through training sessions to learn how to assess homes for wildfire hazards. I asked Alex if he thought the home had had a wood shake roof. Moments later, he quietly pointed out the evidence to me.IMG_1281

If you'd told me just a week before this fire that I would be obsessively taking pictures of staples, I might have thought you were a little strange. But to see the clear evidence of the roof staples that had held wood shingles in place…maybe I'M a little strange but it took my breath away. The abstract principles and photos of past events suddenly came to life for me.

We spent more time that day filming parts of what would become a public service announcement, finding a completely destroyed home next to one that was saved by employing Firewise principles. The scene in this upscale neighborhood was eerily quiet, with only our crew, CAL FIRE staff, and the occasional landscape maintenance vehicle or police car passing by.  The next day, we visited a more modest community where residents were on scene, beginning the heartrending work of salvage and coping with loss.

Photos: Burned fire evacuation plan found at homesite, Rancho Bernardo, California (top); destroyed home with green vegetation visible on the adjacent slope (top right); firebrand/ember from burned home (center right); roof staples for wood shakes at scene of destroyed home (bottom right). All photos by Michele Steinberg, November 2007.


Q. How do you eat an elephant?  A. One bite at a time. 

A silly riddle, but applicable to us who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI is pronounced woo-eee, and said with feeling).  Eating an elephant is a big job and best not done alone.  We each have our individual elephants to eat by mitigating our properties in our quest to become Firewise.  I can attest it is a long, arduous and often painful task that never seems to end.  And, just about the time I think I’m done, it’s time to start over again. 

I’ve had the privilege (and pleasure) of working with other communities over the years who recognized they had a wildfire problem and became Firewise Communities.  Let me share with you what I’ve learned:

First, “the Organized Bird Gets the Worm.”  So, get organized.  In this time of tight budgets and limited funding, it is no longer the early bird that gets the worm; it’s the organized bird.  EarlybirdTeam up with your local natural resource managers and fire department to assess your wildfire risks, followed by developing a plan of actionable items your community can accomplish.  This does several things for your community: 1) it lets others know your community has acknowledged its wildfire exposure and is ready to begin the journey on the path to becoming Firewise; 2) it allows local resources to economize on their limited time by the community taking on more of the role for education and community project planning; and 3) being organized empowers the community as a much stronger voice when requesting grant funding and getting the attention of abutting public land managers.

Second, “Eating an Elephant Takes a Village.”  OK, your pet elephant just died in the front yard. (Mine was pink!)  Once the grieving is over, how do we get it into the soup pot?  In our case, the elephant is the huge volume of fuel we need to remove from around our homes and communities.  The trees and brush we’ve cut are now a huge pile of slash in the front yard.  This is where thinking like a village comes into play.  Organizing chipping days, negotiating discount rates with mitigation contractors, or developing your own community based solutions to slash disposal are how we’re going to get this elephant in the pot.  Learn how over 800 other “villages” are eating their elephants as Firewise Communities by visiting

Finally, “Show Me the Grant Money (maybe).”  The most common complaint I hear is, “We can’t do anything about the fire danger unless we get a grant.”  Not true.  It will just take longer to reduce the wildfire hazard.  But, it can and is being done across the nation as organized communities develop local solutions to solving their fuel (elephant) issues.  Also be aware, grantors are starting to ask: “Where’s your plan, are you organized, and what are you already doing?  What partnerships have you formed?”  Competition is fierce out there, so get going, and don’t give up.

In order to make our task of being Firewise easier, we must first, recognize that only one person can truly affect what happens on your property:you.  Then you can begin your quest for knowledge to learn how you can reduce your risks of wildfire loses.  You are not alone.  You and your neighbors are going through the same experiences.  Resolve to begin working together to solve both yours and your neighborhood’s wildfire risks.  The easiest way is to become a Firewise Community.  Learn about becoming a Firewise Community at

--Keith Worley

Note:  No elephants, birds or worms were harmed in the writing of this blog.

Public domain clip art courtesy

OctoberThe October 2012 issue of Fire Break, NFPA’s wildland fire newsletter, is now available for viewing. In this issue, you’ll find:

  • Information about the Firewise program’s latest community milestone!
  • Reports that explain how certain areas around the country, including the west and northeast, will continue to experience high wildfire risk, and why
  • A link to an FAC article reprint from the September/October issue of Journal, chronicling the coalition’s visit to Colorado after the Waldo Canyon Fire
  • A link to the recent free FAC webinar that explains more about the national effort and how NFPA and Firewise play a role in the initiative
  • Information about Aron Anderson, the newest member to join our wildfire division’s team 

Sign up today to receive Fire Break each month via e-mail. It's free and will keep you up to date on the latest news and information on mitigating your wildfire risk to take back to your communities, organization or fire house.

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