Los Gatos residents save homes from wildfire by heeding warnings

Smoke and flames in late May sent residents rushing from their homes in a Los Gatos hillside community.

An afternoon temperature spike near 85 degrees, coupled with contractors working on a concrete fence on Mountain Laurel Lane, nearly sparked a catastrophe.

"Oh my gosh, it was the scariest day. I was just on autopilot, I think. I was in disbelief really. I never thought this would happen to us," said neighbor Shadi Allen.

She shook off her shock, called 911, then grabbed fire extinguishers and a water hose to fight the flames.

Santa Clara County firefighters responded quickly, and were able to stop the steadily progressing blaze, before it spread beyond the two-acre property, and to neighboring homes in the tony subdivision.

Department officials said just days before, they had mailed 11,000 letters to area residents in this urban interface, about their 3-zone "Defensible Space" program.

The first zone calls for homeowners to cut grass down to the dirt and remove dead shrubs, leaves, plants, and flammable materials. Zone 2 advises keeping grass no longer than four inches and maintaining horizontal spaces between shrubs. The last zone urges trimming tree foliage and removing smaller trees to reduce the possibility of blowing embers spreading a fire.

"Cause it slows the wildfire down. But it also allows us time to go out and suppress the fires," said Jeremy Davis, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Clara County Fire Department. "It gives us what we call trigger points – areas where we know we want to stop the fire. Without the defensible space, it makes it harder for us to extinguish the fires."

Former Stanford Cardinal head coach Ty Willingham’s house was in harm’s way.

"I didn’t believe it would be me. But I hoped we’d never have to witness it," said Willingham.

But he had acted on the information in the "Defensible Space" letter, directing his landscapers to cut down his grass and remove vegetation and other fuel sources. He said the "play call" by firefighters was a sound one.

"Once we got the instructions, you have to act on the plan. And you have to have confidence that the plan is workable. And if we didn’t have confidence in the plan, we do now," said Willingham. Added Allen, "That really saved our property, our neighborhood, the hillside."

County fire officials said above average amounts of rainfall this past winter and the higher-than-normal temperatures have produced an elevated risk of wildfires. They’re asking residents in areas where their homes are near dry hillsides and fields to create a defensible space now.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on Instagram, @jessegontv and on Facebook, @JesseKTVU.