Staying a spray away from disaster

Special to The Times

La Habra residents Sue and Mike Pritchard built their dream home in 1989, a rustic 4,440-square-foot cabin in Crestline. Sue, an eighth-grade science teacher, and Mike, an optometrist, plan to make it their permanent home after retirement. They spend summers there for now and sneak away to the retreat on as many weekends as possible.

Given the rural, woodsy setting, fire preparedness has always been on their minds. What's more, Sue's brother, Bill Kolberg, is the Santa Monica deputy fire chief. Early on, Kolberg had advised the Pritchards to keep the area surrounding their home free of material that could become fuel for a fast-moving blaze. Brush clearance is a regular chore.

But Sue still felt they could do more. So three months before the recent fires, she spent $1,250 for an applicator and 16 jugs of Barricade fire-retardant gel -- the estimated amount needed to cover their home twice.

"I took a lot of razzing when I bought it," she said. "People said I was being overprotective."

Fortunately, the Pritchards are also "read-the-directions" kind of folks.

"One of the best things we did was watch the instructional video as soon as we received it with the gel," she said. "Because when the fires came, we had no electricity." The time for popping that instructional tape into the VCR isn't when you are told to evacuate, she added.

In addition to learning the fine points of gel application, the Pritchards picked up critical tips, such as removing curtains and draperies from the windows before evacuating. "Ambient heat can cause the curtains to burst into flames," she explained.

As the fire approached Crestline, the Pritchards sprayed the gel on their home and hoped for the best. They had estimated just about right, using seven of the 16 containers to cover the house. "It took 2 1/2 hours to spray the house using a ladder," she said. "And we paid close attention to applying enough gel to the top and bottom of the decking, and to the eaves, as the video suggested."

The couple also followed Kolberg's suggestion to line up the empty jugs of gel along their garage door to signal to firefighters that the house had been covered. All firefighters would then need to do was rehydrate the gel, if necessary.

When it was time to evacuate and the Pritchards got ready to close the door, Sue glanced at the family photo wall along the staircase. Her eye caught the portrait of her Uncle Bill, known as "Piccadilly Willy" when he flew B-26 bombers over the English Channel during World War II. Would the time spent applying gel have been better spent packing irreplaceable family photos and mementos?

The battalion chief for the Rialto Fire Department reported later that it was a very close call. "Mike Peel told us afterward that the fire had been at our neighbors' back fence," Sue said. "And there were embers flying everywhere from the high winds. The gel kept the embers from igniting our house."

Homes just a mile from theirs were destroyed. Firefighters told the couple that the fact that their home was covered with gel probably helped save other homes in the neighborhood.

"The firefighters didn't have to worry about our house, so they were able to concentrate on two homes next to us that had no protection," said Sue, adding that firefighters used fire-retardant foam, which they carried on their trucks, on several homes in the area.

Foams and gels were instrumental in saving other Southern California homes as well. In Valley Center, an unincorporated area northeast of Escondido, a group of volunteer firefighters that included retirees, a window washer, an avocado farmer and a homemaker used gel to save five homes.

"We took six engines and 15 to 20 cases of Barricade gel," said Vic MacKenzie, a firefighter with the Deluz Volunteer Fire Department, north of Fallbrook.

"We were sort of a guerrilla outfit," he added. "We have smaller trucks that can make it up the steep hills where some of the larger trucks can't go."

With the fast-moving fire, using the gel made a world of difference, MacKenzie said. "Right next door to the homes we saved with the gel, there were homes that burned right to the ground."

The Pritchards planned to spend Thanksgiving weekend in their dream home and asked Peel to join them for dinner. "We're way behind in our preparations," Sue said. "Our freezer may be empty, but we've never had more to be thankful for."

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