The Wildfire Next Time

The thin plume of smoke quickly grew into a wall of fire fanned by hot summer winds blowing in from the Central Valley. Flames devoured the tinder-dry feast of grass and shrubs covering Mount Tamalpais and raced into Mill Valley. Bells and sirens sounded. Fire leapt from house to house, tree to tree. The wind carried embers up hillsides and across valleys. The sky blackened as the air filled with a sound that was half crackle and half roar. For more than a day, fire crews from over half a dozen cities battled the blaze.

“The whole ridge was nothing but a red mass of fire. You’d be downtown and hear someone say, ‘There goes my house,’ and he’d just stand there like a statue, staring. When you see 50, 75 or more houses going up at once, it is quite a spectacle,” one eyewitness said.

This disaster happened in 1929, and nearly 120 homes in Mill Valley were lost. Today, the same fire would consume at least seven times that number. But in the more than 80 years since the Mount Tam fire, Marin has been lucky—the only other catastrophic wildfire we’ve had was the 1995 Vision Fire, which destroyed nearly 50 homes in Inverness Park.

Yet the danger persists.

“The most significant life safety threat in Marin is wildland fire,” says Chris Godley, manager of the county Emergency Services Office. “In the worst-case scenario, we could see a repeat of the Oakland Hills fire.” That fire started on a hot July morning in 1991 and killed 25 people, injured 150 and destroyed almost 4,000 homes.

Marin is even more vulnerable than Oakland in many ways, Godley says. The iconic open space here commingles with nearly every town in the county. Most communities are dominated by nature; overgrown one-lane roads twist and turn up hills. In a fire, overhanging trees and bushes could create tunnels of flame. The narrow roads would quickly clog with traffic in a chaotic collision of residents fleeing the flames and firefighters trying to get to them.

Worse, Marin’s complicated topography gives fire plenty of places to spread; the many hills and ravines offer fresh fodder for the flames with every shift in the wind. “When there are certain conditions, and a hot dry wind that comes out of the valley, it’s nearly impossible to stop a fire until the weather changes,” says Kent Julin, forester with the Marin County Fire Department.

A Land Made for Fire

Homes surrounded by natural beauty come with a price: California’s landscape was designed to burn. Small fires once smoldered across Mount Tamalpais once or twice a decade, and native plants adapted to that cycle of burn and rebirth. Some, like shrubby chamise, are full of volatile oils and small, dry branches that speed flames along—perhaps so the burn will pass through faster. Bishop pine and some manzanita need fire for their seeds to open. And significantly, small fires have cleaned out the underbrush that can fuel a larger fire if allowed to accumulate.

“Fires to the forests are as necessary as crematories and cemeteries to our cities and towns,” forester G. L. Hoxie wrote in an article in Sunset magazine in 1910 protesting the government’s then-young policy of fire suppression. “This is nature’s process for removing the dead of the forest family and bettering the conditions of the living.”

As self-evident as the wisdom of those words might seem, fire suppression as public policy has long been commonplace. Fires of any size are routinely stifled on public lands, an approach that fire experts now say has greatly increased the odds of a catastrophic blaze. Fallen limbs and dry underbrush have accumulated for more than a century. In some places, such as Yosemite National Park, the policy of suppression has cautiously been reversed and certain wildfires are now allowed to burn—a move scientists say will improve forest health and reduce the chance of future conflagrations. But in developed places like Marin, that is not an option. “There’s too much at stake,” says Julin. “People’s lives and livelihoods are at risk so we’re going to fight every fire very aggressively.”

Instead, city, county and other agencies that manage Marin’s large swaths of public land work to lower the risk in other ways. In many places they clear out the underbrush in much the same way that a burn would. Mowers and chain saws nibble away at overgrown thickets and dead limbs on branches. When weather conditions are right, intentional fires are lit to clear out invasive plants, dead brush and other fuel. A network of fire roads provides access to firefighting equipment, and trees and shrubs have been cleared from strips of land to form “fuel breaks” designed to slow or stop a blaze.

Yet the threat continues to grow, and the efforts of public land managers are hampered by the limits of time, money and public opinion. Prescribed burns are an effective tool, but they are expensive and unpopular because they fill residential neighborhoods with smoke. A rising tide of invasive plants makes the looming fire danger even larger. Broom, eucalyptus and other flammable species from different parts of the globe now cover thousands of acres in Marin. Vast numbers of trees have been killed off by the exotic fungus causing sudden oak death syndrome. Today, there is more than twice as much fuel on Mount Tamalpais as there was in 1929—about 25 tons of burnable vegetation per acre, according to a 2003 Marin grand jury report. Fire hazard on the mountain and in many other parts of Marin is ranked among the highest in the state, Godley says.

Fighting Fire at Your Doorstep

When the big fire does come, what is done closer to home will make all the difference, Julin says. “What’s most important is what is happening right around your house, in the first 10 feet or so,” he says. “Embers can travel a quarter mile from the flaming front of a fire and land on your doorstep—and literally at your doorstep you might have a straw mat.”

Roof gutters clogged with dried leaves are the nemesis of firefighters. So are firewood stacked against the wall and bushy plants growing close to the house. Fire experts see all this as just so much kindling. And if one house burns, then maybe the whole neighborhood is lost.

“The embers tend to coalesce, and the wind jams them under roof crevasses and into inside corners in your house,” says Carol Rice, a wildfire expert and consultant with Wildland Resource Management. “Imagine a blowtorch of wind blowing all those little embers until they get to a place where they can’t move any more.”

State and local laws, as well as insurance companies, have standards requiring fire-resistant building materials and other protections for new homes near wildland areas. Also, homeowners in these areas are instructed to create a “defensible space” by trimming trees, clearing brush and cutting weeds within 100 feet of the house.

Experts agree that all this can make a real difference. One survey conducted after the 1990 Paint Fire in Santa Barbara found that 86 percent of homes equipped with both a non-flammable roof and 30 or more feet of defensible space survived. By stark contrast, only 4 percent of homes that had wood shake roofs and no defensible space survived. 

Still, most homeowners in Marin don’t protect their homes adequately, Julin says. Fire departments do inspections and write notices to homeowners, but many rules and recommendations aren’t followed. “I want the glass to be half full, and it’s not,” he says. “We’re not anywhere near complete compliance. I think people have a false sense of security (assuming) that the fire department will come in and protect their home when these big fires sweep in.”

While sometimes that can happen, Julin says, homeowners bear the primary responsibility for saving their houses. Firefighters won’t try to save a house that is a long shot or a danger to the crew. And when a burning neighborhood is full of hundreds of homes, there is simply no way for an engine to come and park at each one.

When the Worst Does Happen

When the big fire happens, a vast machine of crisis control will be ready to go into action. This system is designed to get people out, get firefighters in and save as many houses as possible. On a sunny April morning in Mill Valley, the fire department ran a drill in the Warner Canyon neighborhood to test the system. Long, piercing ululations from sirens sounded evacuation warnings. Home phones rang through a reverse 911 database, delivering an automated message. Sheriff deputies and police trolled the streets, knocking on doors and issuing warnings over loudspeakers. A helicopter whirled overhead, its amplified announcements unintelligible amid the noise of the rotors.

Fire engines from nine agencies rolled into town. As residents filtered toward the emergency center at Park Elementary School, firefighters laid out and connected hoses, filled portable staging tanks with water, and navigated neighborhoods where many had never been before. The drill was practice for an expandable chain of command that most of the firefighters have participated in when they have shipped out to help efforts against large wildfires in other parts of the state and country.

“A real fire is windy, loud, dark, hectic; it’s controlled chaos,” says Mill Valley Battalion Chief Scott Barnes. “We’re driving into an environment that is erratic, but we have a system in place so we can continue with our job under really lousy conditions.”

As a blaze approaches, the firefighters do what they can to protect individual houses, Barnes says. They cut trees away from walls, move potted plants, and may let themselves in to close windows and blinds. Once when Barnes did this he found a cage with two rabbits in it, which he put in his truck and took to an animal shelter. Sometimes, the fight eventually comes down to an engine taking a stand at a particular house that the crew thinks they can save. But when the fire comes up fast, they sometimes have to cut their hoses and run, Julin says.

“In the Vision Fire, the firemen couldn’t see where the road was because there was so much fire and smoke,” he says. “They basically just shot for the area that wasn’t burning, and that was the road.”

A Voice of Experience Says, Be Ready

Despite the firefighters’ efforts, it’s important for people to be alert, be prepared and assume the worst can happen to them. Fires can move incredibly fast; the Oakland Hills fire burned nearly 800 buildings in the first hour, and at its apex it devoured a house every 11 seconds. “You have to think about what you’re going to do beforehand,” says Robert Harpster, a geologist who barely escaped when his home burned in the Oakland fire. “Some people can think when a crisis is happening, and other people have to go with what they have pre-planned. It would help to think of the things you cannot live without—medical supplies, insurance documents, wills, and so forth.”

Harpster earned the right to give this advice the hard way. Like many others, he had no plan for evacuating his home before the fire. He watched a plume of smoke on the nearby hillside turn into a pillar of flame when out for a morning walk around his neighborhood.

“By the time I got home and we got in the car, we were completely surrounded by flames,” Harpster says. “We followed the road out. It was a like dark tunnel I had to drive down, and the flames would just burst up, 50 or 60 feet high. I think it was when they hit gas heaters or something that they would just send these bright orange flames straight up into the air.”

Harpster escaped, along with his wife and his dog. In their panic, he grabbed some of her jewelry and she grabbed a box of bills. Everything else—photographs, art, a lifetime of documents and possessions—was lost. A witness later told them that their house was destroyed just minutes after their car pulled out of the driveway.

“Of course most people like pictures and art items,” Harpster says. “Those are good, but they’re not your life.”