SYLMAR, CA - On November 15, 2008, the Sayer Fire engulfed the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, a beautiful, gated community in Sylmar. Of the park’s 600 homes, 480 were destroyed. The fire was so hot that fire hoses melted into the concrete. In a press briefing the following day, Governor Schwarzenegger noted that the homes in the Oakridge community had ignited "like matches," and called for a review of fire retardant standards applicable to mobile homes and mobile home parks.
Immediately after the Sayer Fire, many residents found they had lost everything – house, car, clothes. The first forms of assistance they received included gift certificates, cash, and in-kind donations from a variety of non-profit and private volunteer organizations as well as from individuals. As of April 2010, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had awarded over $1.9 million through the Individuals and Household Program to the residents who lost their homes in the fire. FEMA also approved applications from 113 residents for housing assistance ($1.75 million) and for 34 applicants for Other Needs Assistance ($150,000).
Removing debris from inside the park was a main concern. Without some kind of extraordinary intervention, Oakridge was not going to be cleaned up and the owners probably would have had no choice except to close the park permanently.
Federal Coordinating Officer Mark Neveau and Deputy State Coordinating Officer Tom Maruyama hosted a series of meetings, inviting government representatives from all levels, park owners, private nonprofit organizations, and voluntary agencies to talk about the problems and possibilities for the park. As a result of these meetings the County of Los Angeles made a formal health hazard declaration, and the City of Los Angeles took on the responsibility for debris removal from Oakridge. Extraordinary actions taken by all parties made it possible for the FEMA and the State of California to share the cleanup costs, providing a Public Assistance Grant for $1.6 million to reimburse Los Angeles for that work.
With consideration for the safety of the park’s residents and guided by California’s Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) regulations for “ignition-resistant” building materials, Oakridge is rebuilding “smarter and safer.” Although the park is not situated within a WUI area, the owners decided using the stricter codes made sense. The homes in Oakridge are constructed with several fireresistant and fire-retardant types of materials. Additionally, fire-resistant landscaping is encouraged. Decomposed granite or rock mulch instead of grass lawns, and cacti and succulents instead of leafy shrubs also conserve water.
Both WUI and Oakridge mandate that awnings, fences, porch posts, and railings be constructed of fire-resistant material or sheathed in non-combustible material. Masonry skirting is required on the full width of the front wall and at least three feet around both front corners on most houses. Vents in this type of skirting are frequently camouflaged as trim bricks with narrow vertical openings. Screening of quarter-inch metal must back up the vent openings to prevent fire embers from blowing under the homes during a fire. Los Angeles County requires brush clearance twice a year (in May and September), 200 feet back from residential areas. Maintenance crews at Oakridge cut back further – another 25 to 50 feet for extra protection.
Before the Sayer Fire, the park was hit by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake (magnitude 6.9 with the epicenter less than 10 miles away). The violent shaking caused 97 mobile homes to shift from their foundations during the earthquake and 45 of them were lost to fires caused by ruptured gas lines.
To prevent the mobile homes from shifting off their foundations during earthquakes they are supported now with “lock-top” piers and pads. The tops of the heavy-duty metal piers bolt into the steel beams below the mobile home. Below the plywood are concrete footings that anchor the piers and prevent lateral shifting during earthquakes. The fire-resistant materials and lock-top piers are more costly than regular building materials. However, when the market value of each home protected is taken into consideration, the savings are substantial. An average cost for fire-resistant and earthquake upgrades on a mobile home in Oakridge is approximately $114,000. With an average market value of $195,000 that yields a 1:2 cost to benefit ratio. Although the ratio is less than the national average of 1:4, the intangible benefits include living in a very desirable and secure area – a long-established community where residents look out for their neighbors.
Flood protection for Oakridge Mobile Home Park includes two catch basins located at the foot of each canyon at the back of the park. These catch basins were constructed and are maintained by Los Angeles County Public Works. The hills above the park were burned over in the Sayer Fire, leaving unstable soils, rocks, and charred plant debris. During the 2010 floods, the catch basins were approximately half full. The water and debris otherwise would have cascaded through the park endangering homes and residents.
In April 2010, less than two years following the Sayer Fire, about 50 percent of the previous residents had moved back in, either in their unharmed or replacement homes. With an additional 306 reservations in place, the park was looking forward to being full again with old neighbors reacquainted and new neighbors being welcomed in. Remnants of old brick stairways and concrete patios waiting to be cleared for new homes were a reminder of why the mitigation measures are an important part of this community. With an eye to the future, Oakridge is now protected with multiple mitigation for wildfires, earthquakes, and floods.