Overall, I think the lightning fires of Summer 2008 were a good thing for Mendocino County.
True, they caused illness and distress, destroyed valuable timber, and cost a bundle to contain. These are not good things, and I don’t take them lightly.
But they also gave us a chance to learn, to practice for “the next time.” And they cleared thousands of acres of brush that needed to burn, for the health of the environment and the wildlife that depends on it.
We had thought such fires would “never happen here.” And we thought that, if they did, firefighters would take care of everything. Most often they do – but sometimes situations overwhelm their very best efforts, as happened two years ago.
So what should we do? Let’s get prepared and take responsibility for ourselves.
Some people in our county are doing this with gusto. They are clearing flammable brush and making their homes resistant to burning embers – two crucial requirements of wildfire preparedness.
They are also deciding, far in advance, what they will do when a fire approaches. Will they evacuate at the first sign of smoke? Or will they stay with their homes?
Staying behind could be safer for some people on remote, narrow roads. But it’s risky, and requires proper training, skills, clothing, tools, and plenty of hoses and water. Have a long talk with your nearest fire department before making that decision.
Shouldn’t everyone always evacuate? Firefighters prefer this, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Most people who have died in wildfires were trying to evacuate. But they left too late, or were caught in accidents or traffic jams. These tragic things happen.
Had they been prepared, and stayed inside their homes, they might have survived. Even a wooden house offers significant, though temporary, protection from flames and heat – much more than a car or, heaven forbid, the shirt on your back.
Recent research shows that in wildfires, contrary to popular opinion, most homes are not immediately ignited by big flames. They burn, rather, due to small burning embers that the wind forces inside vents or into nooks and crannies. Often embers smolder for hours before flames appear. If no one is present to douse them, embers cause large fires, and homes and memories are destroyed.
The term “defensible space” refers to a cleared area in which firefighters or residents can safely defend a home. This is important, as it keeps big flames away.
But repelling embers is just as crucial, and requires these actions: (1) top priority, if you have a wood shake roof, replace it; (2) keep your roof valleys and gutters free from dead leaves and litter; (3) put 1/8” metal mesh over all your outdoor vents and around your under-deck areas; (4) remove all flammable materials within five feet of wooden walls or supports; and (5) keep flammable items off your deck or porch. Culprits there include jute doormats, patio furniture cushions, wooden planter boxes, brooms, newspapers, dead leaves -- anything that will readily catch on fire.
Firewise Communities/USA, a national wildfire preparedness organization, urges people to make their homes not just “defensible,” but “survivable.” This means homes are so well prepared they can survive a wildfire on their own, with no one present! I believe this should be the end goal for our county’s rural residents.
The Mendocino County Fire Safe Council has created an easy-to-read Wildfire Risk Assessment which describes these subjects in detail. It and other information is available on this website, as well as www.firewise.org, www.fire.ca.gov, and www.firecenter.berkeley.edu, or by contacting the Fire Safe Council at 462-3662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Think about it. How will you prepare, and what will you do?
Contributed by Julie Rogers, Former Executive Director of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council. These are personal opinions not necessarily shared by MCFSC’s Board of Directors or all the fire agencies in our county.