Volunteers watch for flames, suspicious activity in windy conditions

Joan Steiner keeps an eye out for anything suspicious on a recent Red Flag Warning day along Santiago Canyon Road.
Joan Steiner keeps an eye out for anything suspicious on a recent Red Flag Warning day along Santiago Canyon Road.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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When the Santa Ana winds come out, so do the firebugs. Some communities in high fire danger areas take precaution into their own hands by adding more of their own eyes to keep watch.

In Santiago Canyon in eastern Orange County, warm Santa Ana winds buffet the grassy hillsides. The gusts whip around your hair, making you look a little bit like Medusa. The canyon is bone dry.

Ed Hill, of Orange, stands by his truck along Santiago Canyon Road. He wears a neon yellow “fire watch” vest. This is where the Santiago Fire burned two years ago. Hill points at wind kicking up dust in the distance.

"See how high the winds are? Look at the dust up on the fire trail up there, on the fire road," says Hill.

The dust looks sort of like smoke, but Hill knows better. He’s part of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s volunteer fire watch program.

"I enjoy the back country and I don’t want it burned up again," Hill says. "The fire in ‘07 devastated this particular area. In fact, it started right here and it went out this way, and as you can see there’s a lot of dead trees here and dead shrubbery. It’s recovering nicely. But I’d much rather show it to you as it was five years ago."

When the fire conditions are right, Hill comes out as a fire watch volunteer.

"You can’t be here a half an hour without somebody driving by and beeping their horn and thumbs up, just waving," he says. "I’ve already had three different people stop here today and ask me if I had enough water. Did I need a sandwich?"

A little ways down the road, Joan Steiner, of Irvine, keeps an eye out from her truck, tucked into a turnout at the edge of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy property.

"My primary goal is to be, like, a very highly visible presence out here and basically to be a deterrent, primarily to be a deterrent," Steiner says. "So if someone is thinking of coming by to start a fire, to do something suspicious, they’re going to see a fire watch vehicle and they’re going to know that people are out here watching."

The volunteers watch. And they take notes. They write down license plate numbers. They note descriptions of drivers who throw cigarette butts out of windows. They jot down anything that might help a future arson investigation. They report fires, too. But by the time a wildfire gets going in gusty winds, it’s often too late.

"We almost look at, you know, these weather events of Santa Ana winds or Red Flag conditions as the emergency itself," says Irvine Ranch Conservancy Deputy Director David Raetz. "We don’t want to wait until the ignition starts because then it gets really big, really fast."

Orange County’s canyons have several fire watch programs. Residents of Laguna Beach started a fire watch program after a wind-driven wildfire in 1993 wiped out 391 homes and damaged more than 600 others. The Inter-Canyon League Fire Safe Council runs a fire watch program in Modjeska, Silverado, and other canyons in the region.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy started its fire watch program two years ago, after someone sparked the Windy Ridge Fire off the 241 Toll Road by setting a stolen car on fire. The Irvine Ranch Conservancy had just finished training fire watch volunteers, but hadn't yet deployed them when the Santiago Fire hit. That fire was one of nearly two dozen burning in Southern California at the time. Raetz says it solidified his belief that a fire watch is really necessary.

"The concept of fire watch is not new. It’s been around for a long time," Raetz says. "What we’re really trying to do is mainstream it and make it almost like a neighborhood watch within the wildland areas."

The idea is to overlap the programs, so there’s enough coverage. The Irvine Ranch Conservancy has roughly 120 fire watch volunteers who get a call when weather forecasters predict Red Flag conditions.

The South County Land Stewards, a group that manages wildlands in South Orange County, just started a fire watch program this fall. They cover Rancho Santa Margarita, Coto de Caza, and other canyon developments that abut the wildland of south Orange County. The group started training sessions last month for about two dozen volunteers.

"Repeated fires convert our vegetation mosaics to weedy landscapes," says Sandy DeSimone of Audubon California’s Starr Ranch Sanctuary, who is one of the women in charge of the fire watch volunteers. "And our fires are largely driven at the end of the dry season by high-velocity Santa Ana winds. And they just burn through everything. And that’s our fear for the wildlands. And, then of course, we’re also concerned about the homeowners adjacent to our wildlands. And their concern, of course, is protecting their property and homes."

For many of the volunteers, the wildlands are literally in their backyards.

"You know, when you get the bog and all those oak trees – we’re surrounded by oak trees that could jump from oak to oak to oak, you know, where I’m at," says new volunteer Lisa Van Antwerp of Dove Canyon. "And then you’ve got Coto on the other side and it’s all fields. So if Coto goes, we go."

For Van Antwerp and others, fire watch is proactive.

"People feel like they don’t have any control or power to stop any of these types of events from occurring," says Raetz. "And so people in the general public really want to try to contribute in being helpful in reducing these large catastrophic fires."

Raetz says whether it’s to protect their houses or protect the wildlands they enjoy, people in the fire watch programs feel like they’re at least doing something.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy will hold a fire watch training session at its headquarters in Irvine. Orientation and background checks are required prior to training. For more information, contact David Raetz at the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.