SANTA CRUZ >> While firefighters kept the devastating 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire out of Santa Cruz, officials say that under a worst-case scenario, virtually the entire city, all the way to the coast, could suffer the fate of Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon, the mountain communities ravaged by the flames.
With fire season starting in Northern California, homeowners in the Santa Cruz area have new options for protecting their houses and property, as skyrocketing wildfire risk from climate change drives innovation in fire-protection technology. The CZU firestorm, ignited in many places by lightning, highlighted both the problem of over-stretched firefighting resources, and the need for residents to do everything they can to protect their lives and homes.
But some of the home-defense products appearing on the market are far from one-size-fits-all, and in Santa Cruz County, fire experts say, some can do more harm than good.
It takes water
Take the W.A.S.P. “Gutter Mount Sprinkler System,” made in Canada and endorsed by many fire officials in heavily forested British Columbia, including Fire Chief Gord Schreiner of Comox Fire Rescue on Vancouver Island.
The easy-to-install technology is “a pretty simple concept but it’s very effective,” said Schreiner, whose department sells the product to homeowners and also installs it on houses as fires approach. But unlike in Santa Cruz County, water is widely plentiful in the Comox Valley via lakes, ponds, streams and hydrants, and Schreiner said B.C. firefighters’ use of sprinklers depends on water supply.
Down in the Santa Cruz area, Ben Lomond Fire Chief Stacie Brownlee recalled with frustration the use of jury-rigged sprinkler setups by some San Lorenzo Valley residents during the CZU fire. “It’s a huge issue,” Brownlee said. Water consumption by sprinklers drawing from community systems meant that in some cases firefighters lacked water pressure, and in others, water tanks on properties were drained long before any flames came close.
Santa Cruz Fire Department acting Fire Marshal Tim Shields said such sprinkler systems, if not run from tanks, could put firefighters in competition with residents for water.
“As you draw off that water supply you’re impacting the hydrants that we may need to access,” Shields said.
Other new products that are applied to properties and houses before fire comes may offer more promise, according to fire officials.
“Pre-treatment is a big deal. and it’s becoming a bigger deal,” said retired Menlo Park Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who organized a support effort for the Boulder Creek Fire Department during the CZU firestorm.
Earlier this month, Schapelhouman helped present a “wildfire preparedness fair” on the peninsula that featured Los Gatos company Komodo’s spray-on fire retardant. Residents can can apply the product to vegetation, decks, homes and other buildings. The mixture is water- and plant-based and biodegradable, and has just become one of only three such products to receive U.S. Forest Service approval, said Komodo CEO Shawn Sahbari. “We can claim a once-a-year application and you’ve got protection,” Sahbari said, adding that an extremely heavy rain could wash the product off.
To protect a three-bedroom house and its immediate surroundings would cost $200 to $300, he said. The product comes as a powdered concentrate or a ready-to-spray liquid, and in kits that include a battery-powered backpack sprayer.
Far more expensive are automated systems that spray a water-and-retardant coating onto homes, and may feature battery backup in case of power loss, remote triggering and the option to use tanks for the water supply.
Colorado-based waveGUARD sells a self-contained, automated system based on infrared detection of approaching flames and spraying of a microbe- and water-based retardant all over a structure, with batteries and a water tank insulating the equipment from blackouts or interruptions in water supply. Pricing starts at a whopping $80,000.
Frontline Wildfire Defense, which has an office in San Rafael, offers a biodegradable-foam-and-water sprinkler system that connects to a home’s plumbing and can be triggered remotely or on site to coat a house. Prices start at around $25,000 and depend on the structure.
Firms make claims
Companies marketing home fire-protection systems claim they can help homeowners get fire insurance, and for a lower cost. Tom Kelly, vice president at Orca Insurance in San Jose, noted that several insurers fled California after mega-fires began laying waste to communities, and homeowner policy denials and cancellations are rampant among people living in risk zones. He was able to secure coverage for a large recreational facility in the Santa Cruz Mountains recently because it installed the Komodo system, he said.
Home insurance providers ultimately will start factoring in homeowners’ protection technologies when deciding whether to offer coverage and at what price, but the firms have yet to embrace the systems, he said. Still, on a case-by-case basis, a retardant system could tip the odds of obtaining coverage in a homeowner’s favor, or produce a slight discount, Kelly said.
Brownlee and San Bruno Fire Chief Ari Delay both said that under the worst conditions of heat, wind and dryness, wildfire could spread down from mountains through cities such as Santa Cruz. “In California, most of the communities are at risk from a fire like that under the right conditions,” Delay said.
Shields noted that the 2017 Tubbs blaze that leveled hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, and the Marshall Fire in Colorado that burned more than 1,000 homes, highlight the risk to areas that before accelerated climate change were considered safe. Embers can travel a mile or more to set a home on fire, Shields noted. However, a robust fire department and good roads inside the Santa Cruz city limits give him confidence that if fire began spreading from forested areas around the city, it would be quickly extinguished, he said.
Most important for urban, suburban and rural residents of areas at risk from wildfires, officials said, is clearing flammable materials from around homes, having an evacuation plan, and getting out when the evacuation order comes.