A catastrophic wildfire roaring through Nevada County could be more devastating than the one that destroyed more than 250 homes near Lake Tahoe this week, according to fire experts.
"If we have one here, it's going to be worse," said Steve Eubanks, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest. "We have higher temperatures, lower humidity and our vegetation is three to four weeks drier."
Though Eubanks and Tahoe Forest Fire Chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley saw many homes burned to the ground, they also saw many that remained standing. These homes all had one thing in common - defensible space of at least 100 feet of vegetation clearing, which slowed flames and gave fire crews room to fight.
"The homes that survived were the ones that didn't have vegetation next to the home," Eubanks said.
Valuable lessons can be learned from Tahoe, he said.
"Fuels treatment does work. You need to continue fuels treatment and encourage your neighbor to do it, too," Eubanks said. "Go outside and visualize all the vegetation dead and all the neighbors houses are gone."
Pincha-Tulley said the burned area at the Angora Fire reminds her of the Gold Hill area at the edge of Grass Valley, as well as the Banner Mountain area above Nevada City - lots of brush and trees that have grown unimpeded for years.
Creating defensible space does not mean ruining the appearance of your property, according to Joanne Drummond, executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada City.
People with questions can call the council at 272-1122 and get a free defensible space advisory visit to find out what they can do. The council also has a booklet called Firewise Plants for western Nevada County for locals to select plants that would slow or stop a fire, not ones that would fuel it.
Putting in plants such as scotch broom and juniper that are sold locally, "Is like putting a bomb next to your house," Drummond said,
What if we evacuate?
Fellow Fire Chief Tim Fike, of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, and Pincha-Tulley worry about areas full of brush with few roads.
"Fike and I talk about how long it would take to evacuate Banner Mountain," Pincha-Tulley said. "We need a five-hour window."
The media would be used extensively for an evacuation in order to tell people where to go, she said.
"If it gets to a point where you have a volunteer evacuation, just go," Pincha-Tulley said. "Don't rely on cell phones, because when you have an event like the one in Tahoe, people start calling each other and it jams the system."
In a special insert in today's newspaper titled "Nevada County 2007 Wildfire Season Guide," you can find tips on evacuation and what to do before leaving home. You can also learn about defensible space and how to get help to create it.
When it comes to fire preparedness, people also need to think about the insurance they carry.
"Usually after a large fire, 60 percent of the people find out they're underinsured," said Jeff Dunning at his Allstate Insurance office in Grass Valley.
People should figure they need $150 per square foot to rebuild a modest home, $175 to $200 for an average home and $250 or more per square foot for a luxury home, he said.
Homeowners should compare the figure to the "dwelling unit number" on their policy, Dunning said.
"The number should at least match the dwelling unit number," Dunning said. If not, people might think about getting more insurance.
People also need to consider fire insurance that has actual cash value as opposed to replacement value, Dunning said.
An actual cash value policy lets you build a new home with fresh materials and all new contents, he said. A replacement value policy will bring depreciation into the picture and a company might pay only $5,000 to replace a $10,000 roof simply because it was old at the time it burned.
The average claim costs in a catastrophic fire tend be 30 percent higher than individual blazes, because contractors and materials become harder to find, he said. Dunning also is a member of the Fire Safe Council and helped draft the county's fire plan last year.
Dunning is convinced a major fire is coming.
"As I drive around and see the thick canopy of trees, it scares me," Dunning said. "Nevada County is absolutely ripe for a catastrophic wildfire. Unless people take responsibility for their property, it's going to burn."
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4237.
Inside today's issue of The Union, you will find a special supplement titled Nevada County Wildfire Season Guide. It includes articles about how and why it is important to clear a defensible space around your home and what to do in case of evacuation. You can also find a map locating your area's fire department and its phone number.