A wildfire that began on May 5 in Santa Barbara County, Calif. — during Wildfire Awareness Week May 3-9 — continued to burn as of press time, having burned 8,733 acres and destroyed 77 residences as of May 10, 2009, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. Additionally, 60 outbuildings were destroyed, 22 residences were damaged and 69 outbuildings damaged, with the fire being only 65 percent contained as of press time.
Estimated costs of the fire as of May 10 were $9 million, NICC noted. The County of Santa Barbara declared a local emergency due to the fire, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, meanwhile reminding Californians to be vigilant in preparations to protect their properties.
According to the Governor’s office, by May 7, 3,500 homes had been threatened and 5,400 homes had been evacuated. About 13,500 people had been evacuated under mandatory orders, and 13,000 had been voluntarily evacuating their homes, although about 1,200, were able to move back in as the threat to their properties cleared. One hundred and twenty-five people were in shelters. Twenty-eight firefighters were injured. In total, 1,400 firefighters and 177 engines are fighting the fires, the Governor’s office said.
“The Jesusita Fire has been a great challenge, there are no two ways about it,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said, “because of the winds, 50 mile-an-hour winds, the lack of access to the mountainous terrain and the dense brush and all of this creates great challenges.”
Sundowner winds — Santa Barbara’s equivalent of the better-known Santa Ana Winds — were responsible for spreading the fire, as they whipped through the passes and canyons with gusts greater than 60 mph, according to AIR Worldwide.
“It is highly unusual to have such a destructive fire in Southern California in May,” Dr. Tomas Girnius, senior research scientist at AIR Worldwide. “The peak fire season — at least in terms of highly destructive fires — usually arrives in late fall. However, the region has been experiencing an ongoing drought, and precipitation during the last year has been about half its normal level. Similarly, the extreme Sundowner winds that have been exacerbating the situation also are an unexpected phenomenon for this time of year.”
Officials noted the Jesusita fire is especially close to November 2008’s Tea Fire, which destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito. Estimates of that fire reached $632 million for residential properties because the average price per house in that area is $1.4 million, with the median estimated at $1.3 million.
The median home value for the Jesusita area is just over $500,000, but it does contain a number of multi-million dollar mansions — several of which reportedly have been destroyed, AIR Worldwide indicated.
Buildings in the area are constructed of stucco walls and chimney finishes, have shed (flat) roofs covered with low-pitched clay tile and terra cotta or cast-concrete ornaments. The homes generally have little cleared area separating them from the surrounding vegetation, which consists of an equal mix of chaparral, brush, and conifers. In many cases, even homes that do have partial setbacks will be affected by encroaching flames, depending on the direction of the fire and accompanying winds, AIR Worldwide said.
“The exposures within the Tea Fire area are built on a higher slope than those in the area of the current fire, which tends to exacerbate fire risk,” Girnius said. “At the same time, housing density in the Tea Fire area is noticeably less than that in the area of the Jesusita Fire, suggesting that the risk of direct house-to-house spread of the fire is greater in the current situation.”
“My heart goes out to the families who have lost their homes and all their belongings in this wildfire,” said Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. “I urge everyone who has been evacuated from their home to check their insurance policies. Many homeowners policies cover additional living expenses (ALE) incurred as a result of a mandatory evacuation. Coming up with extra money for hotel stays, extra food and other additional living costs are the last thing fire evacuees should have to worry about. Check your policy, and if you have any insurance questions, call the Department of Insurance at 800-927-HELP.”
State law requires that ALE coverage be provided for 24 months following a declared state of emergency such as the Jesusita Fire, according to the Insurance Information Network of California. ALE coverage typically includes extra food costs, increased housing costs, furniture rental, relocation and storage costs, telephone installation and extra transportation costs to and from school or work, after the deductible is reached, CDI said.
The insurance industry also encouraged all Californians to make sure their insurance policies are updated and to conduct a home inventory.
“This should certainly serve as a stark reminder to residents across our state that wildfires can happen anytime, anywhere in California,” said Candace Miller, executive director for the Insurance Information Network of California. “Californians should take the time to prepare their homes, their families and their finances for risks ranging from wildfires to earthquakes.”
“Victims of the devastating Santa Barbara wildfire should think first of safety and protect themselves, their families and neighbors from harm,” advised Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies (ACIC). Then, he said as victims begin the process of moving forward, they should contact their homeowners insurance companies as soon as possible to begin the recovery process.
Sorich pointed out that many insurers had established temporary facilities in the fire area to help their policyholders. Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, for instance, deployed its Wildfire Defense Services to the area, and, as the fire spread, it dispatched additional wildfire engines and crews.
“We have sprayed a number of the homes with fire-blocking gel and have taken other protective measures. We are in continuous contact with Incident Command and are fully coordinating our efforts with them,” said Scott Spencer, worldwide loss prevention manager for Chubb Personal Insurance.
Insurers, in most instances, also have toll-free numbers that allow the victims to seek help as soon as possible, Sorich added, noting this fire is early in the season.
“It is now obvious that fires in California are almost a year-round event,” he said. “Fires in our state are a serious threat, and tens of thousands of claims have been filed with insurance companies, which have paid victims hundreds of millions of dollars.
“But fire losses are more than dollars and cents,” Sorich continued. Emotional attachments and irreplaceable personal items also are at risk. Residents in high risk areas should do everything possible to help prevent their homes from becoming additional casualties of California’s raging wildfires.”
The Cause of the Fire
Fire investigators have confirmed the Jesusita fire origin is adjacent to the Jesusita Trail, commonly accessed from the San Roque or Tunnel Road areas. The fire cause appears related to the use of power tool equipment involved in vegetation clearance. Fire investigators are requesting public assistance with identification of the person or persons engaged in vegetation clearance on Monday, May 4, and Tuesday, May 5, 2009. The unidentified persons are known to have been on the trail between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on both days, according to NICC. Persons with information regarding those individuals should contact the Santa Barbara County Tip Line at 805-686-5061.
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