RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. (AP) Jorge Llorente became irritated recently when the fire department kept rejecting his plans to landscape his hacienda-style home with jacarandas and avocado trees.
But he is grateful now.
Those restrictions may well have saved his multimillion-dollar home when a wildfire passed through in October.
“Now that we have a chance to see how it works we are tickled pink,” the retired surgeon said. “I’m a convert. I’m a true believer.”
Rancho Santa Fe has lots of converts after braving Southern California’s wildfires, the first major test of the stringent construction and landscaping standards adopted by the community in 1997. The San Diego suburb lost 53 houses, but none of them were in the five subdivisions that embraced restrictions designed to be so tough that people can stay in their homes if they cannot evacuate.
As Southern California begins to rebuild from the blazes that killed at least seven people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, homeowners and government officials are looking at places as far away as Australia and as nearby as Stevenson Ranch in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, that have adopted super-strict standards that require such precautions as nonflammable roofs, indoor sprinklers and regular watering of shrubs.
Rancho Santa Fe practices a strategy known as “shelter-in-place,” designed to insulate homes from flames if people cannot evacuate.
The fire department in Rancho Santa Fe, whose past residents include Bing Crosby and Howard Hughes, scrutinizes plans for every tree and bush and sends inspectors with measuring tapes to make sure its orders are obeyed.
Trees and bushes must be a certain distance from the house and cannot exceed a certain height. Roofs must be nonflammable; shrubs near the house must always be watered. Indoor sprinklers are a must.
Columns must be masonry, stucco or precast concrete; windows must be dual-paned or tempered glass; wood fences cannot touch the home.
“Rancho Santa Fe has done some really, really pivotal work,” said Ron Coleman, former California state fire marshal and vice president of Emergency Services Consulting Inc. in Elk Grove, Calif. “It’s a success story.”
Cliff Hunter, Rancho Santa Fe’s fire marshal, believes the standards saved homes.
“I just go by the results,” he said as he drove through the wide streets of The Crosby subdivision, where hillside flames stopped just short of homes.
Fire experts caution that no home is fireproof; they prefer the term “ignition-resistant.” Advocates say such precautions give firefighters time to save more vulnerable homes in fast-moving fires.
But some critics say the shelter-in-place strategy may lull homeowners into a false sense of security, leading them to stay put when they should flee. And some say it only encourages construction in tinderbox areas in California and elsewhere across the West.
Nearly 1 million homes in 11 Western states border undeveloped wildlands, and builders are increasingly breaking ground on the edge of wooded areas, according to a study by Headwaters Economics, a consulting firm in Bozeman, Mont.
Despite the destruction in Southern California — and widespread acknowledgment that fire will strike again — there is little doubt homeowners will be allowed to rebuild on the same lots. San Diego County has already issued its first building permit for a home destroyed in the fires.
But government officials and fire experts say the blazes may lead to stricter standards.
San Diego County, which was hardest hit, will revisit building codes and may add restrictions, said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. In March, the county Department of Planning and Land Use expanded the shelter-in-place concept as an option for new subdivisions in areas where the topography prevents the building of a second escape road.
It is difficult to say how much a shelter-in-place design adds to the cost of a home. Roofing and sprinkler systems can easily run tens of thousands of dollars, said Dan Bailey of the International Code Council, which advises governments on building restrictions. Other measures, such as trimming trees, cost little.
Rancho Sante Fe is a community of about 10,000 people with giant homes on large lots, where golfing and horseback riding are popular pastimes. The median household income in the 92067 ZIP code tops $200,000.
Residents in the five protected subdivisions get a fire department brochure that tells them that they can survive a fire without evacuating and that they should keep a three-day food supply. Those who live outside the area get a brochure titled “Getting Out Alive.”
Llorente, who moved to his 2.5-acre lot last year from San Diego, thought Rancho Santa Fe’s restrictions were overkill until he and his wife were ordered to evacuate their home. They fled the nearby flames Oct. 22 with their two cats and a computer. That night and the next day, they were convinced they lost their home.
The couple drove north to the first hotel they could find — out of range of San Diego television stations — and waited for morsels of news. A friend said a fruit stand burned near the gated entrance to their subdivision, where homes sell for $2 million to $12 million.
The flames came within about 200 ft. of the house, wilting rose petals next to one wall and dumping ash on the pool and hot tub. But the house itself was unscathed.
“We were very, very lucky,” he said Oct. 29 on the patio on his hillside lot, which is filled with peppermint willows and olive and citrus trees, with views to the Pacific Ocean on clear days.
His neighbor, Don Ceglar, also felt the rules went too far when he moved from Connecticut in 2003. The fire department refused to let him in until he removed two 8-ft. cypress plants near the front door.
Ceglar ignored three reverse 911 evacuation calls the morning of Oct. 22, thinking it made more sense to stay put than to drive narrow, winding roads surrounded by fire.
He said the community’s fire-protection standards passed the test with flying colors.
“The fire surrounded our community like a doughnut,” he said. “It’s remarkable. It literally looks like someone took a torch and went to the edge of these properties, and the fires just stopped.”