UCSB emeritus professor Richard Martin recently fought the Jesusita Fire single-handedly, riding out the firestorm in a homemade bunker.
The 73-year-old retired UCSB chemistry professor and Mission Canyon resident constructed a fireproof bunker 10 years ago with nine-inch-thick concrete walls and a large metal door that can withstand flames for up to two hours. When the Jesusita Fire raged toward his home last Wednesday, Martin ignored mandatory evacuation orders, retreating instead to the five-by-seven-foot bunker he built for just such an event.
By 4 p.m. last Wednesday, Martin’s neighborhood was engulfed in flames that blazed through the hillside and destroyed many homes in the area. Martin, his wife Penny and his home, however, survived the inferno inside the bunker.
“When we were in the bunker during the firestorm, you would never have known a fire was going on. … Inside it was very peaceful,” Martin said.
Despite orders to evacuate, the retired professor said he knew his bunker would defend him and that he could save his house from the fire if he stayed.
“I have two choices: We can stay and try and save the house, or we can leave, evacuate and almost certainly lose the house,” Martin said. “Now that I have this bunker, I know absolutely that we will survive the fire, and not only that, but survive without any injuries or serious ill effects. By staying, we were taking a very small risk.”
Local authorities were not as confident and told Martin on two separate occasions that he should evacuate. Martin, however, said he knew the home he has lived in for over 30 years could not survive a firestorm unless he stayed to defend it.
“My house is such that it’s … not built to withstand fire,” he said. “It was built 31 years ago.”
Martin feared the wooden decks and steps – along with several California Live Oak trees in close proximity – made his home especially susceptible to fire. Instead of relying on the professionals, he decided to use his bunker to maintain a two-front defense with rain sprinklers and his hose.
During the blaze, he would periodically leave his bunker in order to battle spot fires with a hose. According to wife Penny Martin, burning debris reached as close as the doorstep before the couple was able to douse the flames.
“At one point during the firestorm, a big chunk of wood had blown onto the bottom wooden step and started burning. …[Richard Martin] knocked the wood off the step and watered that all down so it wouldn’t burn,” she said.
Amid fiery winds, flames and blazing heat, the retired professor remained outside for several minutes at a time.
“In this case, there were two factors that were important,” he said. “One was that we had five Rain Bird sprinklers on our roof, and we have two large decks and wood face boards around the roof, and all those wood surfaces were kept wet throughout the firestorm. The second important factor is that we were there and could come out during short periods of time and put out spot fires.”
With the help of their bunker, some sprinklers and a hose, the Martin family ultimately saved their home. Of nine homes in the Martin’s area, six burned to the ground.
As of last night, the Jesusita Fire was 80 percent contained, although county officials do not expect the fire to be fully contained for another seven days.
To date, 8,733 acres have burned in the fire and 78 homes have been destroyed. Approximately 145 homes remain evacuated. The cost of fighting the fire is currently estimated at $15.5 million.