Gordon Sichi spent 37 years helping generations of students at Anacapa School prepare for a brighter future. Now in retirement, he’s enlisted a flock of Rain Bird sprinklers to protect his own future in the San Marcos Trout Club.
The Sichi property is tucked into a quiet corner, framed by large oak trees and covered by a lush garden filled with fruit trees, succulents, flowers and other greenery.
For Mr. Sichi and his wife, Suzie, the home represents a new beginning. Their original home was destroyed in the 1990 Painted Cave Fire.
Mrs. Sichi said it was horrific to walk through the skeleton of her home and only salvage two cast-iron frying pans and a piece of ceramic pottery she made in college.
“It’s devastating, it’s like losing a loved one,” she said as she looked from her balcony onto her garden and the rest of the property below “We didn’t spend a lot of time sifting through it.”
“I tell people that maybe the most challenging thing was to learn how to receive, because we were fine. We were generous people and when we were to nothing, just the clothes on our back, people just came forward everywhere. The house that we were staying in, we would get home from being places and there was a hallway full of new things that people had brought — just boxes of new things from stores that they thought we’d need. That generosity, it was very hard at first. I wish you could learn that by not having to lose everything, but I know I learned it then. Now when we give it’s with a different kind of feeling,” said Mrs. Sichi.
“We never want to go through that again and that’s why we developed this. It was time consuming and expensive, but we really don’t want to do that again,” added Mr. Sichi.
The Sichis speculate that a sprinkler system could have saved their first home from the Painted Cave Fire, because two neighboring homes didn’t burn. Mr. Sichi said a stray ember may have sparked a spot fire that claimed their home.
Despite the risks, Mrs. Sichi said rebuilding in the Trout Club was an easy decision.
“The thing was that we only had the house insured for the amount of the mortgage so in 1977 that was 49 (thousand dollars). We got that right away but how are you going to build a house for $49,000? At least here we had the land and you know we raised our sons here and it’s a good place to live.
“It was a bummer in that we would have had the house paid off in six more years when it burned down but instead, we had to start over basically and we just paid it off this last year, the new one. That was a long time of extra mortgage,” said Mrs. Sichi.
The Sichis made several fire defense modifications to their home over the years, including fire resistant windows, a metal roof and metal outdoor furniture. But when Mr. Sichi retired from Anacapa School in May 2018, he started attending Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisor meetings and studying how houses survive fires.
He found that sprinkler systems helped houses in Australia survive fires and that revelation took him down a rabbit hole that ended in a year-long project that cost more than $90,000.
The foundation of the fire suppression system is a 22-kilowatt Generac electric generator powered by a nearby propane tank. The generator is designed to start within 12 seconds of a power outage and can run Mr. Sichi’s home appliances and the sprinkler system under full load.
“My fire suppression needs to work when Edison is off because that’s what’s gonna happen in a fire situation,” said Mr. Sichi.
The generator powers an Impulse radio internet system that should remain operational during fire conditions, and a backup mobile broadband card.
The internet connection allows Mr. Sichi to activate the sprinkler system from anywhere in the world with an app and monitor his property from four night vision cameras mounted on his chimney.
Two 5,000-gallon water tanks and a seven-horsepower water pump can push water through nine high-powered Rain Bird sprinklers set up to arc water all over the house.
The system can run for up to two hours continuously or in short bursts controlled by the app.
The pump can also mix Class A Phos-Chek fire retardant foam, the same as used by firefighters, into the water from a Ansul bladder tank, though a manual valve must be used to open the bladder.
“It’s environmentally safe; there’s no cleanup,” Mr. Sichi said. “And this (Ansul) tank is a very specialized tank and it took quite a while to get and it was $19,000 just for this foam tank.
“It mixes one part of foam to 100 parts water and it makes this really moist white foam that will go out and make the moisture retain as opposed to water that would dry out.”
Mr. Sichi thanked his son Cielo, who helped design the system and calculated the water pressure for the sprinklers. Local businesses Joy Equipment Protection, Advanced Cable Systems, Daniel’s Electric, Primo Plumbing and trenchers Wes and Andy Picotte also helped bring the project together
“Certainly if we would have a horrible wind-driven fire ,,, all bets are off if some 50 feet of flames are coming through here. But if it’s a matter of spot fires … short of an enormous conflagration I think this system will hold out really well,” said Mr. Sichi.