Maeve Juarez is credited with saving dozens of lives1 despite nearly losing her own during the January 2018 mudslides and debris flows in Montecito, California, which were triggered by heavy rains following the 2017 Thomas Fire.
It isn’t the only time Juarez has helped save lives during or after a wildfire. She spent 20 years fighting fires as part of the U.S. Forest Service, most recently as a Battalion Chief with the Los Padres National Forest nearby. The Montecito Fire Protection District recruited her as a Wildland Fire Specialist in 2016. When a wildfire isn’t raging, her focus now is squarely on improving Montecito’s wildfire resilience.
“Our main goal is to work with communities on structure hardening and defensible space,” Juarez said of herself and the other wildland fire specialist on staff, Nic Elmquist. “We respond to wildland fires during fire season, but the rest of the year we’re focused on education and prevention. We view wildfire prevention as collaborative. No one thing will work, so we spend time with property owners on all aspects of prevention. Having two dedicated wildland specialists working with the public and building relationships is absolutely invaluable here.”
Grants can help with resilience investments
While the tax-based funding of wealthy Santa Barbara County supports their efforts, Juarez notes that grants exist to help fund resilience programs in wildfire-prone communities. Here are some of Montecito’s proactive efforts, which can be adapted to other areas and hazards.
Building permit reviews: “We’re fortunate here to be able to share with residents and designers structure-hardening concepts before a home is built,” Juarez said. That’s because Montecito’s building permit process requires Juarez or Elmquist to work with the Fire Marshal to review building plans prior to final approval. If a redwood deck is planned, for example, they would show the owner noncombustible alternatives to redwood. On a tile roof, they suggest concrete caps on the ends so embers cannot get in. They recommend fire-resistant paint and dual-pane windows, to provide one more layer of protection if one pane shatters from the heat of a fire.
Home visits: The fire department encourages residents to call with concerns about wildfire risks on their own or their neighbors’ property. A call triggers a visit from Juarez, during which she may point out dry brush, dead trees and other wildfire fuels, such as debris in gutters or on rooftops. If residents do not have the means to remove these fuels themselves, the fire department helps.
Chipping program: The fire department’s Neighborhood Chipping Program is a free service that encourages property owners in very high fire hazard severity zones to cut vegetation within three defensible space zones (0-30 feet from a structure, 30-100 feet and then 100 feet and out) and along driveways. “We then come through the neighborhood and chip and dispose of the materials for them,” Juarez said.
Roadway clearance: During the Neighborhood Chipping, the department makes sure access and egress clearance is maintained for firetrucks and residents along main roads. “We drive the neighborhoods and any limbs that hang below 13.5 feet from the roadway are tagged for trimming,” Juarez said. “We also have a contractor weed-whip grasses along all of our high roads. These efforts not only improve fire engine access, but also reduce the amount of heat that evacuating residents might be exposed to during a fire, improve visibility and expand the usable width of roadways on Montecito’s narrow streets. We used to trim and weed-whip once a year, then twice. With 2019’s rainfall we were on our fourth round by July.”
Landscaping: The fire department offers landscaping tips and has a new demonstration garden in the station’s backyard that uses rocks and drought-tolerant plants. These efforts show people they can still have a beautiful garden while being fire-wise.
Evidence suggests that pre-fire action pays
Even without wildland fire specialists, informed residents in any community can implement many resilience measures. Juarez acknowledges limits to effectiveness if neighbors don’t do the same. In a wildland-urban interface, Juarez says evidence suggests that a focused investment in wildfire resilience is worthwhile.
“While any loss is tragic, Montecito lost just seven primary residences in the Thomas Fire, and the damage overall was significantly less than models indicated in our 2016 Community Wildfire Protection Plan,” Juarez said. “This demonstrated how the district’s proactive actions over the past 20 years contributed to the successful defense of our community.”
1. Elam, S. “She narrowly escaped a deadly mudslide. Her heroic efforts saved dozens of lives.” CNN. 22 February 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/22/us/btc-california-fire-official-saves-lives/index.html
This Resilience Trailblazer story is an excerpt from our upcoming report, “California fires: Building resilience from the ashes,” which uses Zurich’s award-winning Post-Event Review Capability to learn from disasters. Our Resilience Trailblazer stories highlight individuals who, as a part of an organization or team, are helping to lead the shift from post-disaster relief to pre-event resilience within their areas of influence. Resilience Trailblazer stories are based on our interviews with the person featured. The content is used with permission of the persons featured.
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