Wildfires offer a grim reminder to take precautions, heed safety tips, officials say
When disaster strikes, be sure to have a game plan.
The Northern California wildfires that continued to cause mass destruction Wednesday should be a wake-up call for all Bay Area residents to put fire prevention safety measures in place and make advance evacuation plans.
The National Fire Protection Association already had named Oct. 8 through Oct. 14 fire prevention week. Yet in a bitter irony, fast-moving infernos broke out in Napa and Santa Rosa on Sunday, the first day of “Every Second Counts, plan 2 ways out” — a national campaign to encourage people to take steps to help them safely escape their home during a fire. Fueled by high winds, the socalled Wine Country fires have since spread into Sonoma, Mendocino, Solano and Yuba counties, and by Wednesday had killed 23 people, destroyed 2,000 structures, and was bearing down on Calistoga.
“Unfortunately most people don’t think about a wildfire until it has an impact on that person,” said Ray Bizal, senior regional director for the National Fire Protection Association. “There are things you can do that can make a huge difference. Everything from making sure the smoke alarms on your house work, to making sure you have two ways out.”
He said 80 percent of civilian fire fatalities occurred inside someone’s home.
The NFPA website includes wildfire prevention safety tips such as clearing leaves, and other vegetative debris from gutters, roofs, porches and decks. It also stresses the importance of maintaining a buffer between structures and grass, trees, shrubs or other surrounding wildlands. That defensible space helps slow down a fire and can protect your home either from direct flame or radiant heat.
Robert Doyle, general manager for the East Bay Regional Parks District, said people don’t generally do a good job keeping their yards clear of flammable debris, such as lowhanging limbs that can then set grass on fire, or stored wood that provides an instant accelerant.
“There is really a lot of great information on the Cal Fire website on how to maintain vegetation adjacent to houses,” Doyle said. “Those are usually specific to forested areas like Lake Tahoe, but it’s basically the same rule. Keep things clear because a lot of times it starts with these little tiny fires and the wind picks up and blows them.”
That is what sparked the catastrophic October 1991 Oakland hills fire storm that left 25 dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.
A grass fire from the previous day was rekindled by hot dry winds blowing from the east, and the sparks and embers ignited dry brush and trees spreading the fire through the densely populated hills above the Caldecott Tunnel. And eight years ago, fierce winds aided the spread of the Martin fire near Santa Cruz and Summit fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains
On the eve of the 26th anniversary of the Oakland conflagration the city offered tips for residents to prepare for an emergency and reduce the risk of wildfires. They included having an evacuation plan, signing up for AC Alert to stay up to date on local emergencies, and in the event of a fire, parking in a garage or driveway rather than on the street.
As part of preparedness, it’s also vital to keep important documents, such as passports and birth certificates, in one place. A good way to do this is to scan them onto an emergency thumb drive and give that to another family member or close friend. And document household items for insurance purposes.
“We tell people to go through your house videotaping and narrate, ‘this is a Sony 42-inch TV,’ open your closets and cupboards and tell us how many china sets you have,” said State Farm Agent Kelly Lux. “That shows ownership because in a fire all of your receipts are gone.”