Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman: It’s not too late to better protect your home and help firefighters
The River Fire is a sobering reminder of the extreme fires that can occur in high-risk areas such as Nevada County and many other parts of California.
My heart goes out to those who lost homes in the fire. I know many people had worked hard to improve defensible space around their homes and harden their structures to resist embers. I had personally toured much of the area where homes were burned when I conducted a couple of Firewise community fire hazard and risk assessments, among 28 I’ve done in Nevada County.
While many of you have prepared your defensible space, you may be able to do a little more right now, next week and beyond to help firefighters’ work go faster and farther. It’s too late and too dry to work with most types of equipment, but it’s not too late to safely take some extra simple steps.
Daily fire reports from incident command often state that firefighters spent time doing “structure prep.” What does that mean? It means they are clearing needles and leaves, cutting shrubs and trees that are touching or around houses. It means removing any flammable items from your porch or deck, like wood furniture, chair cushions, anything that might burn. Is this a good use of the time and effort of highly trained professionals when they could be focusing on stopping the fire?
In every community where I have done Firewise hazard and risk sssessments, the No. 1 problem is having combustibles — things that will burn — within five feet of the homes and on porches and decks. We can do better! We must do better, now, for our own homes and for the greater good by helping firefighters do work on the actual fire.
For every minute we save firefighters from having to “structure prep” our homes, it means another minute they can spend stopping fire’s spread into even more areas. The more open that vegetation is around your home, the better that plane-dropped retardant can make it all the way to the ground and slow the fire. This helps firefighters, too, because it is safer for them to be there with less heat and gives them more time.
Many of us have done this work, but if you haven’t, now is the time to get out there and rake and use your loppers to safely remove flammable materials around and on your home. It’s too dry and risky to use power tools like weed eaters or chainsaws. Any chance of sparks or hot engines on dry grass or litter is too much this year. Even a metal rake on rocks can make a spark (I know from experience). This year, I have raked even where I did weed eating. This sounds extreme, but the fires are extreme.
If your defensible space is clean, help a neighbor. If you can, you can even pull dry plants and shrubs. After your house, work on your roads. Again, do it safely with hand tools only.
Obviously, firefighters use whatever roads are available to access and control wildfires. Roads also serve as firebreaks already in place. I know from my many years of experience on wildfires that firefighters prep roads for use in a wildfire. If your road is flanked by shrubs, grasses and small trees, with trees over the road and low branches, it is not only unsafe for you to evacuate on, and unsafe for firefighters to access fires on, it is also not an effective firebreak. Firefighters spend enormous time prepping roads to corral a fire.
Again, helping them stop the fire faster is better for us all. If we can save them time, they can be more effective using their fire engines to spray water and spread retardant to slow or stop fires.
Most people in Nevada County have worked hard to prepare for wildfires. But with drought and hotter temperatures, vegetation and fuels are drier than ever. Fires are more explosive; one ember can quickly grow into a fire and we need to keep doing our best to do more.
So, get out a plastic rake, pull some weeds, lop and remove shrubs and branches and help yourself, help a neighbor, help firefighters and help us all get through this scary fire season as best we can.
Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman, Ph.D., lives in North San Juan. She is a fire scientist who is often contracted by the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County to perform assessments for newly forming Firewise Communities, as well as many as a volunteer.
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