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What Does It Take To Defend Your Home Against A Mega Wildfire Like The Camp Fire?

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Doug and Kathy Houston's house, still standing just outside of Paradise after the devastating Camp Fire in November 2018.

As the Camp Fire raged toward Kathy and Doug Houston’s property on a ridge south of Paradise, they began dousing their two-story home with water.

Using a professional fire hose and an industrial pump, Kathy Houston says she easily “reached the peak of the house.” The couple drenched it three times as the flames surrounded their acreage.

“It was really emotional all morning, because about every two minutes I’d hear an explosion,” Kathy Houston said.

As the sky became blacker, the threat grew even more real. As embers landed in trees like little bombs, the couple drenched them with hoses connected to pumps that pulled water from their pool.

Doug and Kathy Houston were prepared. They actually defended their home once before, when theHumboldt Fire destroyed 87 homes in the area in 2008.

For two decades, they’ve actively cleared their property of anything flammable. The couple spent thousands of dollars on generators, mowing equipment, water pumps, fire equipment and industrial hoses. They even refinanced their home to buy the adjacent 45 acres as a buffer for added safety.

“We knew when we moved out here this would be our responsibility to protect ourselves, to protect our home,” said Doug Houston, who researched practices used in Australia to stay and survive wildfires.

Cal Fire chief Amy Head recently flew over Paradise and says she could tell who was ready. “Home after home after home was gone,” Head said. “It was pretty evident that there wasn’t a lot of space around these homes to be able to survive a wildfire.”

The chief says preparations begin with creating defensible space: clearing at least 100 feet around a home of things that can burn, making sure neighbors do the same and upgrading things like roofs, vents and windows so embers can’t get in.

This even means not having decorative plants or chairs within five feet of a home. Earlier this year, University of California system forest advisor Yana Valachovic toured the Carr Fire burn area in Redding.

“What surprised me there was how many of the stucco homes were lost and they were surrounded by green lawn,” Valachovic recalled. “What the mechanism of entry was is that they had a ring of vegetation right around the outside of their house.”

Susie Kocher, a forest adviser for the Lake Tahoe region with the UC Cooperative Extension, often works with homeowners that live within the Angora Fire burn area. That blaze destroyed about 250 homes in Lake Tahoe in 2008. A decade later, Kocher says people still aren’t properly preparing their homes.

“There’s still a lot of flammable plants planted right under picture windows,” Kocher said, adding that people have almost set themselves up for failure, “perhaps in the mistaken belief that they are kind of safe now because there’s no big trees.”

If you can’t evacuate, she says the best place to be is inside your home or an open area like a ball field — but she reiterated that this is a last resort.

All this doesn’t just apply to people living in the woods. On November 8, the same day the Camp Fire broke out, a brush fire ignited near UC Davis, where fire chief Nathan Trauernicht says it was fueled by 40 mile-per-hour winds and dry vegetation, which shot embers over a roadway.

“It experienced the same effects of a wind-driven fire that we’re seeing [in Paradise],” he said.

Trauernicht says that, if it wasn’t for a field of dirt blocking the fire, a whole department on campus could’ve burned.

“If you are watching the news and they’re talking about a fire near your area, you really need stop what you’re doing and figure out if it’s serious enough for you to take action,” Trauernicht added.

Back in the Paradise area, Doug and Kathy Houston are taking care of their neighbor’s dogs, birds and cats. As the Houston’s defended their property, they watched homes and barns burn around them. Now, they’re left with survivors’ guilt.

“I have my house, but it's so gut-wrenching to see your town gone and to hear so many people leaving,” Kathy Houston said.

Even though their house is standing, she says there is reason enough to cry.

Copyright 2018 Capital Public Radio