BREA, Calif. – The hillsides ringing the luxury development of Olinda Ranch are blackened while the neatly tended stucco homes are intact. Fickle wind direction helped but so did stringent fire-resistant construction and landscaping standards.
Increasingly, new construction in tinderbox regions of Southern California are built with "shelter-in-place" techniques designed to allow people to stay safely in their homes if they can't escape flames.
At Olinda Ranch, what look from afar like tile roofs actually are concrete. The eaves on the 3,500-square-foot homes are boxed in so wind-whipped embers can't lodge and send the whole house up in flames. Outside, brush can't be too close to the structure. Inside, sprinklers sit above every room and in the hallways.
The construction boosted the confidence of residents like Linda Johnson, who on Saturday watched nervously as flames edged toward the 6-year-old neighborhood of 660 homes.
By dawn Sunday, Johnson was out driving, checking the scene with a friend and her bichon frise, Teddy Bear. She glittered in the morning sun — she had donned all her diamonds, just in case she needed to flee. Instead, she spent an anxious night in her house.
"It's your home, it's your life, it's your history," Johnson said. "It's just really hard to walk away from that."
Tony Ross also stayed put. He owns a fire extinguisher company, so he knows a little about flames.
"After last night, I know all about it," he said.
He could smile because, save for a scattering of ash that he continued to hose down, his house was fine.
Ross said one of the threatening fires started on the hillside right beyond his back yard, where idle white metal oil derricks, relics of the time when the area was an oil boomtown, now stand in stark contrast to the charred ground.
He was preparing to pressure wash his side path when he heard a boom. Soon he saw flames. Raging Santa Ana winds pushed the flames across the hillside so fast that they only blackened the few trees — the fire wasn't there long enough to engulf them.
Ross' wife left, but he stayed. During the night, flames from another fire started to bear down from the east, but stopped on the development's edge, thanks to crews that worked through the night. Behind them, those flames engulfed several homes in a canyon that connects eastern Orange County with western San Bernardino County.
When wildfires ravaged San Diego County a year ago, the community of Rancho Santa Fe was largely unscathed even though it was in the midst of some of the worst flames. The suburb lost 53 houses, but none in the five subdivisions that embraced "shelter-in-place" restrictions.
Rancho Santa Fe and Olinda Ranch stood in stark contrast to the Oakridge Mobile Park Home, a neatly kept community of modular homes in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. A fire whipped by 70-mph Santa Ana winds wiped out 500 homes early Saturday. Unlike Olinda Ranch, the grounds of Oakridge was filled with flammable cypress and eucalyptus trees that lit up like torches.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the burned-out community Sunday and said it's evidence that new construction techniques are sorely needed.
"We should start thinking about building ... mobile homes with the same fire-retardant materials" as modern subdivisions, he said.