STEVENSON RANCH, Calif., Nov. 1 – As deadly fires ravaged thousands of homes across Southern Californiathis week, burning hillsides within a few hundred feet of this sprawling subdivision north of the city of LosAngeles, some residents on Meadow Lane were playing football in the glow of the curling flames.
“I think when our kids grow up, the memory they will have of this fire is that football game,” said PaulRozario, who lives on the cul-de-sac with his wife, Jennifer, and their three young daughters. “We weretogether as a family and there was no panic.”
The Rozarios and many of their neighbors spent the next night at a nearby hotel on the advice offirefighters, as the flames marched closer to their front door. But even as they drove toward the hotel inSanta Clarita, pumpkins and Halloween costumes squeezed into the car, the Rozarios said they remainedremarkably confident.
“A firefighter told me: `Your house is well-built. It will be O.K.,’ ” Mr. Rozario recalled after returningto his house, which was untouched by the fires. “He said the builder did a great job building thisneighborhood.”
No home is fireproof and no hillside community in bone-dry Southern California is beyond the clutch ofcapricious wildfires. As homeowners to the south and east of here in San Diego and San Bernardino Countieswitnessed this week, luck or weather can make the difference between escaping or not escaping disaster.
But as Southern Californians search for lessons from the state’s worst fire season on record, this plannedcommunity at the edge of the Santa Susanna Mountains is being viewed as a primer in fire survival.
“Not one house lost, not one life lost,” said Gail Ortiz, who works for the City of Santa Clarita. “It iswhat everyone is talking about.”
Stevenson Ranch, once pastureland abutting an oil operation run by Standard Oil, is despised byenvironmentalists for encroaching into pristine canyons where deer and owls are abundant. Neighboringcommunities blame the subdivision for traffic congestion.
Until this week, it was probably best known outside this area for a protracted struggle over acenturies-old oak tree that stands in the path of a road-widening project.
But with much of Southern California ablaze, and thousands of firefighters deployed in losing battlesfrom the mountains to the deserts, Stevenson Ranch became a dream firefighting assignment as windsunexpectedly pushed flames from the so-called Simi fire into the Santa Clarita Valley.
“Our people were successful in Stevenson Ranch as a combination of planning and training,” said Anthony J.Iacono, battalion chief for the county’s fire prevention division.
The streets in Stevenson Ranch are wide, the roofs fire retardant, the landscaping moist and thesurrounding hillsides irrigated and cleared of chaparral. The windows have double-glazed panes that resist heatand breakage, and many of the eaves are sealed with stucco to keep sparks from getting into attics.
Address numbers are oversized for easy identification. Even some of the swimming pools are equipped withvalves that allow firefighters to draw the water. “With the construction here, you couldn’t burn downthese houses with a blow torch if you tried,” said Dave Doughty, a carpenter and volunteer fireman onloan from the northern California county of Tehama, whose engine was assigned to a Stevenson Ranch roadthat clings to a scorched hillside. “One fire engine could have saved this entire development.”
While Mr. Doughty spoke in hyperbole, the point was not lost on Stevenson Ranch residents or Los AngelesCounty fire officials, who are responsible for this unincorporated community of about 3,500 single- andmultifamily homes. Most of them were built over the last several years, after a series of new firerequirements were imposed following the calamitous blazes in Southern California in 1993.
As population growth across the state makes development in fire-prone areas inevitable, theauthorities have largely given up on keeping people out of danger and instead have focused on increasingtheir odds of survival.
“With more people being born than dying, we add 400,000 to 700,000 people a year, even if no one evermoves again into California,” said Timothy P. Duane, an associate professor of environmental planning andpolicy at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written about wildfires. “That is a Fresno to aSan Francisco every year. That is a lot of people that need to go somewhere.”
Homeowners who buy in Stevenson Ranch must sign papers acknowledging that they live in an area designated byfire officials as high risk, or very high fire hazard severity zone. This designation pushes up buildingcosts by incorporating safety features not required in less vulnerable areas.
“It is good planning, and required planning,” said Mike Lebecki, an agent with Re/Max of Santa Clarita,who sells Stevenson Ranch properties. “Builders are only so altruistic and do what is required and a maybea little bit more. You need the master plan.”
Fire officials and urban planners liken the approach to sending a soldier into battle: There is no stoppingthe war, but there are ways to influence its outcome. Just as technological advances can give some armiesthe upper hand in combat, fire prevention advancements can make places like Stevenson Ranch easier to defend.
“We’re trying to create a defensible space,” said Chief David Leininger, who heads the forestry divisionfor the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “The idea is to put these things in place so the structure canstand on its own.”
David A. Horne, whose home in Laguna Beach in Orange County was destroyed in the 1993 fires, said thelessons of that year were dramatically illustrated at Stevenson Ranch, but they have been applied elsewherein California as well. Mr. Horne, a marketing professor at California State University, Long Beach,is a board member of the California Fire Safe Council, a volunteer group that promotes fire safety.
Even with successes, Professor Horne said there were no guarantees. After buying the Laguna Beach house in1987, he replaced the roof with fire resistant shingles and installed double-pane windows.
The exterior was already stucco, considered the safest material. Still, his home burned to the ground sixyears later.
“No one thing is going to save a home or not save a home, but everything taken together can really make adifference,” said Professor Horne. “You get 2 percent here, 3 percent there.
“These are all incremental things that when they add up, give a home or a neighborhood a 25 percent better chance.”
Some urban planners prefer to measure the fire safety improvements in terms of time bought for residentsrather than property saved.
Mark Pestrella, an assistant superintendent of building at the Los Angeles County Department ofPublic Works, said the combination of fire resistant building materials and the street layout at StevensonRanch made it easier for firefighters to keep the flames at a distance. But the community’s design wasalso intended to give residents time to flee their homes.
“Any house inundated by a firestorm with 30 mile per hour winds could be destroyed,” Mr. Pestrella said.”When the fire reaches the home, it wants to climb up the walls, lick over the eaves and get underneath andinto the attic. The idea is to create a fire resistant envelope around the entire home.”
The same building approach was taken over the mountain in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles, wherethe Simi fire also raged precariously close to new homes. Some residents there, veterans of hillsideliving, said they chose to buy in Porter Ranch specifically because of the fire safety improvements.
“After you have weathered a fire, you learn how to select your home and your community,” said ChristinaChance, who watched the hills burn this week from her couch. “I feel very safe here.”
The problem, Professor Duane said, is that most Southern Californians do not live in new developmentslike Stevenson Ranch and Porter Ranch. In addition, thousands of homes yet to be built in hillside areaswere approved before the new fire safety requirements came into effect in the mid-1990’s.
The ongoing danger was illustrated over and over again this week. Scripps Ranch was carved out of picturesquecanyon land north of San Diego in the 1970’s and 80’s. This week, some 350 homes there, worth hundreds ofmillions of dollars, were destroyed in a matter of hours.
Many Scripps Ranch residents said they knew for a long time that they were tempting fate. One of them, RickSmith, described an unsettled feeling that his neighborhood was a potential firetrap. But until thepolice cars came down his street on Sunday morning ordering everyone to evacuate, he put thoughts ofdisaster out of mind.
Mr. Smith and his wife, Susie, grabbed a fireproof box with important papers and fled. He returned on Tuesdaymorning to find nothing but a smoldering pile of ashes where his two-story home had stood.