Better safe than … Bitney Springs community holds fire safety drill to prepare for wildfire | TheUnion.com

Better safe than … Bitney Springs community holds fire safety drill to prepare for wildfire

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

All the windows were closed.

Important documents — insurance papers, social security and phone numbers, passwords — were filed in boxes. The homeowners simulated shutting off their propane tank, and said aloud they were leaving the doors unlocked for fire fighter access. They called their friends to inquire about their safety.

The couple were evacuating their home, but there was no apparent danger. Not yet at least.

Craig and Laura Rohrsen were preparing for a wildfire safety drill initiated by residents in their Bitney Springs community. On June 15 they and about 50 others in their area were actively preparing to defend against a wildfire, reorganizing their homes, grabbing necessary belongings and leaving.

At the Rohrsen’s home — possibly due to the lack of imminent threat or their superior readiness — the two were calm. They have an “A” rating home for fire protection, said Craig Rohrsen. Five gallons of water were stored in Rohrsen’s Toyota Tundra in addition to a crow bar to potentially break open a neighbors’ locked gate, thereby freeing them from inferno. Craig Rohrsen held up a bag of snack food.

“Munchies,” he said.

He and his wife have been intent on maintaining high knowledge of fire safety, and being at-the-ready if disaster strikes. They are determined not to be caught flat footed — just as they weren’t during the Lobo Fire two years ago that almost consumed their home.

“The night of the real (Lobo) Fire there were people who had no water, and no shoes,” said Craig Rohrsen. “They left their house so fast.”

BECOMING FIREWISE

The fire safety drill occurred eight months after Bitney Springs resident Scott Allen began organizing his community to be fire-safe.

Allen, a former Eagle Scout and a scout leader for 10 years, held the first Bitney Springs community fire-wise meeting in February. He said 50 people attended. Thereafter, he tasked his son with creating a website to galvanize his neighborhood — and all of Nevada County — into fire preparedness.

Back in November, Allen said he began attending dozens of fire safety meetings. It was then he felt an urgency to protect the about 250 homes in his community. And while Bitney Springs is not a certified fire-wise community yet, it is in the process of becoming one.

Before Allen initiated the fire-wise drill June 15, he broke residents into mini patrols with designated fire captains based on street addresses. The idea was “to get people talking,” he said, and collaborating with their neighbors.

“I’ve really tried to have a holistic, big approach to this,” he said.

A CodeRed message wasn’t sent out the day of the simulated evacuation, said Allen. Rather, the drill was under the full autonomy of community residents — something the Eagle Scout wanted. He hoped people would learn to work together in a chaotic situation, more closely resembling the scenario when a real fire erupts.

The tasks, though straightforward, require cooperation: notify your neighbors of an impending fire, grab the necessary materials and “go bag” and leave.

TEMPORARY REFUGE ZONE

Fleeing the area is not easy, said Allen.

“To evacuate, we have one main artery — Bitney Springs Road,” he said. “Depending on where the fire is and wind direction — usually the wind blows either north or south — we can head west towards Lake Wildwood or east towards Newtown Road or Rough and Ready Highway.”

As a back up plan, residents can take refuge in a few fire safe spaces.

On June 15, about 20 community members organized in such an area on Personeni Lane. They huddled in small circles amid an irrigated pasture that included wide open fields across from resident Jim Gates’ home. Gates, who owns the land, maintains the fields’ dampness, making it defensible from fire.

A red sign reading “shelter in place” demarcates the road from the field.

Beside the pasture, community residents did what Allen had intended: they communicated with one another, bonded and developed future plans to prepare for wildfire.

After about 30 minutes, Bitney Springs residents drove to the Nevada City School of the Arts to discuss wildfire safety lessons and enjoy a barbecue.

PAST REFLECTION, FUTURE PROTECTION

Allen was a senior in high school during the late ‘80s when a wildfire broke out. He said he stayed at his girlfriend’s house because his home had been destroyed.

“We lost everything in that 49er Fire and we had a stucco roof,” he said.

More recently, after the Paradise Fire, Allen cut down “50 trees” near his home, and converted 30 feet of defensible space around his house into 100 feet for added protection.

Allen is not alone in his experiences. Many Bitney Springs residents have similar stories, which encouraged them to take part in the safety drill.

Craig and Laura Rohrsen’s home narrowly escaped the flames of the Lobo Fire. Part of the couple’s property, along with that of their neighbor’s, was burned. Just 75 feet from his home lay dead trees and burnt ground, providing a lethal reminder of what can happen if defensible space isn’t maintained.

“All of this hillside is burned,” said Craig Rohrsen, pointing to the area around his home overlooking Lake Wildwood. Tahoe firefighters had camped out for a week on his property, he said, in order to “see the embers at night” sparking across the community, and further spreading the flames.

Doug Gaylord, a fire captain for his street in the Bitney Springs community, lived in the area when the Lobo Fire struck. His home, too, was almost destroyed, he said. Today, he remains active in defending his home.

“You got to keep at it,” he said.

Jim Gates was a part of the 49er Fire. During that time, he and a number of other residents took refuge on Personeni Lane around his irrigated field.

Gates said he felt encouraged by the turnout on June 15, but still feels most people are not doing enough to prepare for wildfires.

Five percent of people are leading the charge in fire safety, he said, 10% have joined in, but 85% ask public officials for help while abdicating personal responsibility.

The drive to instigate personal initiative, and communal collaboration, is why Allen gathered everyone together to “evacuate,” and subsequently discuss fire safety at the Nevada City School of the Arts.

“I’m not a fireman,” he said. “I’m a volunteer just like you guys.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.