Another possible model for future community fire protection is taking place at Rancho Santa Fe in southern California. This program is actively informed by the second author’s experience. Information produced by the Rancho Santa Fe Protection District titled “Sheltering in Place During Wildfires—a Modern Approach to Living Safely in a Wildland/Urban Interface Community” describes how this concept will work in five of the newer Rancho Santa Fe communities. Southern California, and in particular, San Diego County, has been reluctant to embrace the P/GE/SD policy.
Rancho Santa Fe’s Shelter in Place Strategy
The closest southern California comes to the P/GE/SD model is the concept of Shelter in Place (SIP), which requires residents to leave early in an orderly manner if they can. The only designated SIP developments in southern California at Rancho Santa Fe require Ignition Resistant Homes surrounded by well-maintained Ignition Resistant Landscaping (Figure 2). In the event the resident does not have time to leave before the wildfire arrives the residents are to “Shelter” inside their homes and stay there. In the current SIP model there is, at present, little to no emphasis on taking fire suppression actions outside the home once the fire front passes. Other than the ongoing pre-fire preparation, the SIP resident has a passive role in the defense of his or her property during a wildfire event.
The usual practice throughout southern California is to require evacuations well ahead of the arrival of the wildfire . For instance, in October of 2007 the wildfires in San Diego County resulted in the largest evacuation in California history (over 300,000 people safely evacuated) and the loss of 2,223 homes . Many residents have always defied these orders and stayed behind to protect their property. A few in the past have lost their lives while most have been instrumental in saving their homes and the homes of their absent neighbors. When multiple major wind-driven wildfires are occurring throughout southern California there never will be enough fire engines, trained and equipped firefighters (as in the Canberra, Australia, 2003 fires ), or law enforcement personnel to be in every threatened and evacuated neighborhood.
The San Diego County community of Rancho Santa Fe adopted SIP under the forward thinking and guidance of former Fire Chief Erwin Willis and Fire Marshal Cliff Hunter. They implemented the SIP strategy in 2004 in five of the newer Rancho Santa Fe developments. This concept received its first real test during the Firestorms of October 2007. SIP and P/GE/SD both require homeowner education. The big emphasis in both models is on preparedness well ahead of the fire season. When a wildfire occurs, people leave early or stay within the safety of their ignition resistant homes. They are trained not to panic and not to leave at the last possible moment, as this is when citizens can lose their lives and put firefighter’s lives needlessly at risk. If your house is ignited and you don’t put it out or leave the building, you will be in real trouble.
Evolution of Shelter in Place at Rancho Santa Fe
How did Rancho Santa Fe come to embrace the concept of SIP when other southern California wildfire prone communities have not done so? The concept grew out of studies following the 1990 Paint Fire in Santa Barbara, CA, where 438 homes were lost and one resident was killed  attempting to evacuate, and the 1991 Oakland Hills Tunnel Fire  where 2,475 homes were incinerated and 25 people were killed with 24 of them losing their lives while trying to flee. Erwin Willis, then Fire Marshal with the City of San Luis Obispo, thought “it made no sense that so many residents were losing their lives fleeing structures that we were teaching our firefighters to seek shelter in if trapped by a fire storm” . After reading these studies Willis became convinced that structures and communities could be built that would be safe from wildland fires and residents would not have to risk their lives trying to evacuate. These studies also showed that there was no difference in the survival rates of structures protected by either homeowners or firefighters.
“Shelter in Place” at Rancho Santa Fe Tested
The SIP concept was not tested in a major wildfire until the October 22, 2007, Witch Creek Fire. This occurred during a period of intense Santa Ana winds and several major wildfires had already broken out in southern California, which significantly reduced the number of available ground and air firefighting resources. By Sunday evening and early Monday morning the Witch Creek Fire was burning homes in Ramona, Poway, and Rancho Bernardo and later spread into the SIP communities of Cielo, 4S Ranch, and The Crosby. Because there was so much advance warning about the projected path of the Witch Creek Fire, evacuation orders were given early for an orderly evacuation of all of Rancho Santa Fe through a very effective Reverse 911 system. However, many homeowners in the SIP communities decided to stay, as they had purposely bought homes in a SIP development. During the assessment of home saves and losses, it became readily apparent that no homes were lost in any of the SIP communities. Some residents stayed in The Crosby, some stayed in 4S Ranch (but most left), many stayed in Cielo, and most left in The Bridges. Most residents played a passive role, staying in their homes and taking no direct action before or after the fire front passed. There was an abundance of physical evidence left behind (broken off trees and burned over interior open space areas with native vegetation) that strong winds had severely impacted the SIP Community of 4S Ranch and had indeed pushed the Witch Creek Fire directly through 4S Ranch.
Although there were no homes lost in any of the five SIP communities, the older parts of Rancho Santa Fe did not fare as well. There were 61 structure losses, the largest structure was 12,000 ft2 (1100 m2) in size and the smallest was 400 ft2 (37 m2) in size. A few residents in the non-SIP communities decided to stay, but the main water system ran out of water. Inappropriate landscaping was a primary cause in 50 out of the 61 losses with those 50 homes having less than 30 ft (9 m) of fuel modification from undisturbed wildland fuels and flammable ornamental vegetation. Of the other eleven losses, the landscaping was intact and unburned, yet the structures were burned to the ground due to embers getting into attics via dormer and eave vents. Twelve of the lost homes had wooden siding with bark mulch that went right up to the wooden siding material on the structure. Uncovered trash cans next to structures, bark mulch in contact with the structure, and storage or out buildings located right next to structures all contributed to the loss of homes .
All of the San Diego County newspapers highlighted the successful implementation of the SIP concept, which borrows in part from the very successful Australian model of P/GE/SD. Hunter was overwhelmed with requests for personal interviews from near and far. No lives had been lost and no homes were lost in the five SIP communities, which was in sharp contrast to the number of homes lost in the rest of San Diego County in October of 2007 and particularly within the City of San Diego.
There were other areas of new homes in the path of the Witch Creek Wildfire located in unincorporated areas well east of Rancho Santa Fe where property owners elected to stay with their homes to defend them before and after the fire front passed through . These residents were strongly encouraged to evacuate well in advance of the main fire front as these areas are not designated as SIP, although most of the homes possessed all of the attributes of a P/GE/SD community. As a case in point, newer homes east of Ramona on Starlight Mountain Road were overrun by the Witch Creek wildfire at approximately 5:00 PM on Sunday evening, October 21, 2007. Several homeowners chose to stay while others evacuated. Those who stayed were instrumental in saving their homes and, in some cases, their neighbors’ homes. In one case two new homes that met all updated County of San Diego Wildland Urban Interface Code Requirements survived without any intervention. Another brand new home that met all code requirements, with no one there, burned to the ground several hours after the fire front passed through.
Eyewitnesses were clear that homes were not igniting because of direct flame impingement or radiant heat. All of the homes that eventually burned were still standing for several hours after the passage of the fire front. The homes were burning due to the continuous onslaught of windblown embers coming from the burned over area that found their way into the attics, and in one case, embers got beneath a pre-manufactured home. When able-bodied residents are forced to evacuate they give up any chance of saving their own home and the homes of their neighbors. Fire Service personnel are spread too thin to have a firefighter at every home of those residents who were evacuated. No Fire Service personnel were available to assist any of the residents who stayed, or to protect the abandoned homes of those who evacuated their homes on Starlight Mountain Road on October 21, 2007.
There is a big concern in County and City Government circles about potential liability should a homeowner perish in the defense of his or her home. Consider, however, the liability when all residents are forced to leave and the wildfire overruns the evacuation route killing thousands gridlocked on clogged escape routes. On October 26, 2003, the residents of Scripps Ranch, a community within the City of San Diego, received an early morning notice to evacuate. Residents spent two to three hours stuck in their cars in their own neighborhoods trying to get out while the Cedar Fire burned through the Community of Scripps Ranch, resulting in the loss of more than 300 homes. A sudden wind shift would have spelled disaster for thousands of evacuee’s (Figure 3). Fortunately that did not happen.
Of the 17 people killed in the 2003 wildfires in San Diego County, most of the fatalities occurred while residents were trying to evacuate . Cova  stated that dense developments may discourage consideration of P/GE/SD policies due to the greater possibility of house-to-house ignitions. However, an assessment in Canberra, Australia, identified more than one case where homes in moderately populated areas were saved by residents who stayed and defended even though structures next door were lost due to house-to-house ignition . Cohen  indicated a 2-story house separation of 14 m (~46 ft) or more would not produce ignitions from flame exposure (10 m/~33 ft for a 1-story house).
Following the latest wildfires in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties, in November 2008, County Fire Chiefs in Ventura and Orange Counties were conducting meetings in their communities to get a measure of public interest in and acceptance of a “P/GE/SD” strategy and were beginning to develop instructional materials that explain this approach. However, following the south-eastern Australian bushfires of February 2009 this emerging policy has been rethought and retitled, “Ready, Set, Go”—cf. “Prepare, Act, Survive” now used in Australia [see www.cfa.vic.gov.au/, accessed 18 May 2010]—with a renewed emphasis on pre-fire preparation of the home and property, maintaining the home and fire resistant landscaping in a constant state of readiness, but leaving early when the wildfire event occurs. There is no longer an emphasis on Staying and Defending although this new policy acknowledges that some residents will elect to stay behind and that they should be properly equipped and mentally and physically prepared to actively defend their homes if they do decide to Stay and Defend. Once it is safe to do so, residents that stayed behind are advised to thoroughly check their home, yard, roof, attic, etc. for ember fires; and to use a hose or fire extinguisher to suppress any spot fires or smoldering embers. To be considered an SIP community, the entire community must be designed to withstand heat, flames, and embers from an approaching wildfire (see also ). This means that every home must share the same ignition-resistant design elements, including a well-maintained fire district approved vegetation management plan. An additional feature is the on-going requirement to continue to maintain all fire resistant landscaping and ignition-resistant housing components in perpetuity.