Other Voices: It’s different when it’s ‘your’ fire!
July 6 had been a hot day, but it was late in the afternoon, and it had cooled down some. The first we knew of it, our neighbor, Paul August, called and said he’d heard there was a fire down on Sweetland somewhere and was it close to us. (Our other neighbor, Eric von Platen, also tried to call, but by then his phone line had melted. I can’t tell you how much I love living where your neighbors actually care about you!)
Unsuspecting, we opened the front door.
That sucker wasn’t on Sweetland, it was on our property, 200 feet down the hill from us and coming fast! Suddenly, a bomber was 50 feet over the house unloading with perfect aim on the fire, slowing it noticeably. Talk about sensory overload!
But that’s the way I want it. Calfire’s philosophy is to hit it fast and hit it hard. Throw every resource available at small fires to prevent them from becoming monsters. At least two bombers and two helicopters were dropping retardant and water. It seemed like no time at all before our scene was crawling with firefighters from North San Juan Fire, Calfire, the Forest Service, the Tahoe Hotshots, and Washington Ridge crews, each doing a job that needed doing, and doing it with professional skill and
Thanks to the rapid response, “our” fire was contained at about seven acres, divided into two branches. Investigators, also on the scene promptly, concluded that the fire was probably started by hot parts from a passing vehicle’s failing catalytic converter falling into dry roadside grass. This fire “crowned” into a tall pine tree, and the light (thank God) breeze blew an ember about 100 feet to start a second branch of the fire.
My wife, Sharon, and I have been involved with the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Department ever since we moved here in 2001, and have been aware of many, many times when they, and their brother agencies, have responded heroically to community need. But this time it was personal, and every individual involved, from fellow citizens who dialed 911, to dispatchers at the command center, to firefighters of all agencies, have earned our profound thanks.
Lessons to be learned? Always!
First, for goodness sake, provide as much “defensible space” as you can, both adjacent to your home and throughout your property! Sharon and I spend an incredible amount of time weed-whacking (carefully, with a shovel and water supply handy) tall grass, limbing-up oak and pine trees, and pushing back the Scotch broom. This effort has two results that are obvious to anyone going through a fire incident. One is that the fire is slowed, giving firefighters time to most effectively mount their attack. The other is that the damage done to the environment by the fire is lessened. My heart cries for the decades-old oaks probably burned beyond recovery on an adjacent parcel where mature stands of Scotch broom provided the ladder fuel to send flames climbing high into their branches. Drop by your local fire station; they will provide you with information on creating defensible space.
Second, information, information, information. Initially, our fire was thought to be close to Peterson’s Corner, when it was actually over a mile farther north. The command center can only dispatch firefighting equipment to where they are told the fire is. Getting multiple calls on an incident allows them to better pinpoint the location.
They don’t mind answering the phone. Really. If you see a need for emergency
action, call 911! In our case, the initial incorrect information probably cost two or three minutes in response time, which could have been critical.
Words cannot convey the depth of our thanks to each and every one of the dedicated firefighters who responded to this incident. May God bless you and keep you safe as you continue to save our homes and our dreams by putting yourselves in harms way, and by putting the wet stuff on the red stuff!
Ed Beckenbach lives in North San Juan.
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