WINDSOR, Calif.—Grass and other vegetation have begun to cover the ash left behind when the largest blaze of the 2019 wildfire season burned the edge of this Northern California town about four months ago.
Windsor still stands because most of its residents, acting on the lessons of deadly blazes in 2017 and 2018, grabbed pre-packed emergency go-bags and evacuated immediately when ordered. Unlike in other dangerous California blazes, including 2018’s Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, first responders were able to focus entirely on the firefight rather than last-minute rescues.
“It’s not an accident that Windsor got saved,” Mayor Dominic Foppoli said. “We went through 2017. We watched it happen again in Paradise.”
With deadly and destructive wildfires now burning every season, California communities from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the canyons around Los Angeles are preparing for the worst. The state’s wet winter months have become a critical time for officials and residents hoping to protect themselves from a fire season that starts earlier and ends later than ever.
Some are organizing mass-evacuation drills and hosting events to help businesses and residents design emergency plans. Many also are reconsidering building codes and emphasizing the need to create defensible spaces by limiting vegetation and other flammables around homes and businesses. In Northern California, the communities of Orinda, Moraga and Lafayette banded together to build a 19-mile fuel break meant to slow a catastrophic blaze from spreading into neighborhoods from nearby hills.
Forecasters expect warmer and drier weather in California heading into spring, which could cause grasses to dry out and lead to an earlier than normal start to this year’s fire season. The season used to take off around June but has been starting earlier and earlier for the past few years.
“We have indicators that we’re drying out already,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
In the last three years, wildfires in California have burned more than 3.7 million acres, killed 150 people and damaged or destroyed roughly 35,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. Eight of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history and five of the deadliest have occurred since 2017—a year many officials consider the turning point in public perception of the danger posed by such blazes.
“You literally think about it every day,” Ken Pimlott, who retired as head of Cal Fire at the end of 2018, said of the threat. “We’re only going to continue to see these things grow, so people can’t let their guard down.”
Cal Fire now has 10 crews dedicated year-round to clearing brush from fire-prone areas across 33 million acres of land that the agency is responsible for. In the past, crews split their time between firefighting and vegetation management, making it easy to fall behind on brush clearing in an active fire season.
In Los Angeles and elsewhere, community leaders are organizing meetings with firefighters and other emergency officials, who encourage people to reduce flammable vegetation near their homes and to map potential escape routes, including alternatives to driving in areas where traffic is likely to clog the roads.
The Moraga-Orinda Fire District, east of Berkeley in Northern California, has led work on a $4.25 million shaded fuel break along a corridor where the region’s Diablo winds could whip up a major fire. Starting in July, crews spent 89 days using heavy machinery and controlled burns to reduce the amount of dry leaves, heavy brush and low-hanging tree limbs—all fuels that aid a fire’s spread—across a 19.3 mile stretch.
“We accept that there are fires that are going to be too big to put out,” Dave Winnacker, chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District, said. “We need to slow it—hang it up, if you will—buy time to get people out and move firefighting resources in.”
The fuel break was one of nearly three dozen projects completed at the direction of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in an effort to help protect the 200 communities his administration deemed “most-at-risk” of wildfire in California. Two other fuel breaks created as part of this initiative were credited with protecting Santa Barbara from the 3,100-acre Cave Fire just before Thanksgiving.
It was the last big wildfire of the state’s 2019 fire season. In just hours, it spread from a flicker in the Los Padres National Forest that was barely visible from a camera mounted on the rooftop at the University of California, Santa Barbara into an inferno that forced the evacuation of more than 4,000 residents.
Firefighters were challenged by constantly shifting winds and narrow, winding roadways that impeded their ability to get large firetrucks in position, particularly as they fought to save an enclave of homes on Painted Cave Road.
As flames lighted the hillside above State Route 154, U.S. Forest Service Hotshot Assistant Superintendent Phil Hernandez watched the blaze sweep toward Painted Cave Road.
“This is the stand right here,” he said, as he conferred with a county fire chief about the best way to get more firefighters and engines up the hill’s tightly twisting roadways.
The next morning, officials credited brush clearing work the community had done with helping firefighters keep the Cave Fire from those homes.
In Northern California, Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management, says he expects his office to run at least a dozen mass evacuation drills this year.
The Kincade Fire tested everything when it ignited northwest of the Sonoma County community of Geyserville in late October. By that point, residents had been on alert for days as utility PG&E Corp. warned of potential power shut-offs due to hot, dry and windy weather. The forecast had the Sonoma County Fire District readying additional firefighting crews and equipment.
In Windsor, Mr. Foppoli worried whether the preparations would be enough. As the fire swept closer to the mayor’s town, he and emergency officials called to evacuate the community.
That evening, Sonoma County Fire District Deputy Chief Matt Gustafson delivered a dire message.
“The projections show the fire turning in the middle of the night and wiping out Windsor,” Mr. Foppoli recalled the deputy chief saying that Saturday in late October. And if it missed Windsor, the rapidly growing blaze might threaten the town of Healdsburg, where the Foppoli family’s winery was located.
“I’m either going to lose my livelihood,” Mr. Foppoli thought as he walked outside, teary-eyed, to call his older brother, “or I’m going to lose most of my town.”
Mr. Foppoli’s brother offered some words of confidence that sent the 37-year-old mayor back inside, where he and officials continued to strategize.
“Not this time, that was the theme,” Mr. Gustafson said.
When the mandatory evacuation alert began pinging into customers’ cellphones at KC’s American Kitchen around 10:30 a.m., the restaurant cleared out in about 15 minutes, said owner David Culley, a Santa Rosa resident still in the process of rebuilding the home he lost in the 2017 Tubbs Fire.
Mr. Culley thought of an emergency-preparedness seminar he had attended the month before that covered how he would handle payroll and other restaurant business in the event of a blackout or wildfire. As his wife took pictures off the walls that she wanted to save, Mr. Culley grabbed the cash in the register.
“We didn’t even do the dishes, just wiped it down, locked up and left,” Mr. Culley said.
A few days later, Windsor officials stood roadside with signs to welcome residents back, including the Culleys, whose restaurant was unharmed. Thousands would later gather at the town green to thank the firefighters and other first responders who had helped stop the fire at Windsor’s edge.