California Wildfires Skip 'Shelter' Communities

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Homes spared in the wildfires in Southern California were in so-called "shelter-in-place" communities. They're designed so fire goes around instead of through them, enabling residents to stay safely if there is no time to evacuate.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Southern California's wildfires have destroyed about eighteen hundred homes. And one question is why more homes did not burn. Even though nearby houses burned, there were entire communities that were spared, and some of those are in five back country neighborhoods of multimillion dollar houses in San Diego. These are called shelter-in-place communities. If there's no time to evacuate, residents are supposed to be able to stay there safely. The homes are designed so fire goes around instead of through them.

And as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, this is the first time in the U.S. that the shelter-in-place concept has been tested. It appears to have worked.

JEFF BRADY: Just north of San Diego, there's an overlook, high enough so that when a red-tailed hawk flies by, you can pretty much look it in the eye. Guff Thompson(ph) took me there. He lives down below in the Crosby neighborhood of Rancho Santa Fe. Thompson points to the east and then sweeps his arm toward the west, the same direction those infamous Santa Ana winds were blowing just a few days ago.

Mr. GUFF THOMPSON (Resident, Rancho Santa Fe, California): And the fire came over the mountains and landed in this creek, which I guess worked like a blowtorch, and so the fire swept down extremely rapidly through here, as you can see, and burned some houses in the communities on the other side, but none on this side.

BRADY: The homes across are a few years older, built before the shelter-in-place concept was put into practice in Rancho Santa Fe. Thompson's neighborhood is newer. And instead of having a golf course in the middle, it's on the edge of the community where the lush greens double as a firebreak. There's also strict rules dictating what kinds of plants are allowed - no combustible pine trees in the front yard and only tile roofs. Then there's the unpopular ban and against parking in front of your house; that's in case fire trucks need to get through.

Mr. THOMPSON: We had special meetings with the fire chief. We all bitched about the parking and so on. He just shook his head and said that's the way it is.

BRADY: A few miles away in Escondido, Rick Halsey also is pleased the fire avoided his house - just barely.

Mr. RICK HALSEY (Director, California Chaparral Institute): The mountain top was all lined with flame and it was moving down. And it got down the bottom within about 15 or 20 minutes.

BRADY: That was only a half-mile away; most of his neighbors had evacuated.

Mr. HALSEY: At that point we started hearing propane tanks explode and a lot of big puffs of black smoke, which typically indicates the house is on fire.

BRADY: Halsey does not live in a shelter-in-place neighborhood, but he's a well-known advocate for building such communities. He runs an environmental group called the California Chaparral Institute. And he thinks people who live in fire-prone areas should fire-proof their homes. That message has three key elements: keep the brush and trees around the house trimmed; design houses with fire-resistant features; and finally, put them in places where they are likely to survive a fire. Until this week, he gave all three of those things equal weight, but then he noticed one home in his neighborhood.

Mr. HALSEY: They had adequate defensible space, and the house burned down, because there was a poor placement of the house; it was right at the top of a draw. That's where all the heat gets funneled in and goes up to the building and literally explodes it.

BRADY: Halsey says now he's going to focus more on where houses are located and how they're built; keeping the trees trimmed will be third on his list.

Shelter-in-place has been a controversial concept. Some critics have said it would never work in this dry landscape where fires travel so quickly; others said it was just an excuse for developers to build in places they weren't allowed to before because it wasn't safe. Anti-sprawl advocates suggest there are some places people just shouldn't live. But in Southern California, millions of people already live in these areas. And shelter-in-place advocates now have some evidence to back up their argument.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, San Diego.

INSKEEP: When President Bush toured California's devastation this week, he was repeating a scene from four years ago.

Back in 2003, the president walked through the ruins of a home belonging to Frank Peters. You could see a couple of sewing machines amid the debris, and the president tripped over another Peters' possessions - a sword. This week after another fire, the president returned to California. And by that day, the homeowner he met in 2003 had rebuilt. When he met Frank Peters in 2003, the president said, I hope you can bounce back. This week, Peters told a reporter: I bounced ahead. His new house has, so far, at least, survived the fires of 2007.

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