Wildfire season is not going to wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside. After a winter of lackluster rainfall, Northern California is facing a worse-than-average outlook.
Preparing for these inevitable fires is extra important right now. First responders and emergency managers this year will not only have to cope with the already difficult task of addressing wildfires that have burned increasingly out of control in the age of climate change, but also do it in the midst of a public health emergency the nation has not seen the likes of in 100 years
In a sign of the increasing difficulty that fire protection now poses, Cal Fire is asking people to self-certify their compliance with defensible space requirements. "With COVID-19 restrictions limiting Cal Fire’s ability to conduct annual defensible space inspections this year, property owners are urged to conduct a Defensible Space Self-Assessment," the agency said in a press release.
Anthony Gossner, chief of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, during a virtual town hall stressed the importance of self-sufficiency. He said that during emergencies residents should not assume local governments can handle all their needs, “because there's just not enough of us to do it. So we really rely on … folks to be in a position to help their neighbors and help themselves."
Fire preparedness is multifaceted. Here are some guidelines and advice to get you ready.
Prepare the Outside of Your Home
If you live in a fire-prone area, sometimes called the “wildland urban interface,” creating what’s called “defensible space” is an important way to slow the spread of fires, increasing the chance of your home’s survival. Think of defensible space as a buffer zone, free of anything likely to catch fire.
Cal Fire asks homeowners to think about two zones of defensible space. The first extends 30 feet from homes, outbuildings and decks:
- Remove overhanging and dead branches. All branches should be a minimum of 10 feet away from your chimney and other trees.
- All dead vegetation should be removed.
- Clear dry leaves and pine needles from the yard, roof and rain gutters.
- Move wood piles to Zone 2.
Zone 2 extends from the end of Zone 1 to 100 feet out from your home, structures and deck:
- Here, mow annual grasses down to 4 inches or less, and create horizontal and vertical spaces between vegetation.
- Don't let fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones and small branches accumulate more than 3 inches high.
Find detailed instructions at Readyforwildfire.org.
One thing people don't think about a lot is to make sure their home address is clearly visible. You should; that way, if you call for emergency help, responders can find you.
‘Harden’ Your Home Against Wildfire
Many homes that burn in a wildfire are never in the path of flames, but ignite from flying embers and firebrands that can accumulate in eaves or drift into vents. Hardening homes against fire can be as inexpensive as installing screens over vents and as pricey as installing new windows, roofing or siding.
Proposed legislation from Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, aims to provide financial assistance for home hardening by establishing a $1 billion fund to distribute rebates and low-cost loans to Californians for home retrofits. But Gov. Gavin Newsom has not committed to the measure.
Have a Go Bag Ready
There are three reasons people tend to put off preparing for a disaster, says Karen Baker, co-chair of the Listos California Emergency Preparedness Campaign. "They either find it scary, expensive, and/or time-consuming," she said.
The organization recommends packing up some items in advance so you can get out of the house quickly if you need to. If cost is a concern, you can assemble the kits over time.
Recommended items to pack beforehand:
- Documents: copies of insurance, identification, and other important papers and photos
- Cash: $1 and $5 bills are best
- Map: with different routes out of your neighborhood marked
- Medications list: Include all prescriptions and other important medical information.
- Portable radio
To grab on your way out the door:
- Wallet, purse, keys
- Phone and charger
- Portable computer
- First aid supplies, N95 masks, hand sanitizer, wipes
- Change of clothes
- Anything else needed by people or animals in your household
Create a plan for your household in the event of a wildfire emergency. (See Cal Fire's wildfire action plan checklist.) And be sure you’re signed up to receive emergency alerts for your area. You can sign up here.
Expect Smoky Days
With fire comes smoke. That's a special concern this year as air pollution has been associated with an increased risk of death from COVID-19.
You can get smoke advisories, forecasts and current fire conditions through the federal government’s AirNow website.
How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke:
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Use fans and air conditioners to stay cool.
- Know how the ventilation system in your home works and close the outdoor air damper, if there is one.
- Avoid making indoor air pollution any worse by smoking cigarettes, spraying aerosols, frying food or burning candles or incense.
- Buy an air cleaner (also called an air purifier) that doesn’t produce ozone and has a HEPA filter. Designate a “clean-air room” in your home for smoky days. (The Environmental Protection Agency has a guide for air cleaners in the home.)
These devices can be a few hundred dollars and hard to obtain during bad fires, so think about buying one in advance of fire season. In California, few resources exist to help low-income people afford these devices, other than an asthma intervention program in Fresno, which provides enrollees with air cleaners for a year. In years past, some counties have set up “clean air shelters” during smoky days, and this year those have to take into account social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for clean air shelters with the prevention of COVID-19 transmission in mind, but you’ll probably find it easiest if you can shelter at home.
One theme running through the advice of fire and emergency officials this year: Your social network is one of your most important safety tools. "Really, when it comes down to a ‘no-notice' event, like a fast-running wildland fire through your neighborhood, it really is neighbor helping neighbor,“ said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Gossner.
That means it’s time to think about who in your neighborhood might need help getting ready for fire season. Maybe they're elderly and could use some help trimming vegetation. During an evacuation order, who will you check on and who will check on you? Write down their names and contact information, pack the list in your go bag, and share it with others for back up. At least one person on your list should live outside your area to ensure you’re not relying on someone who also might be affected by the fire.
Even if this feels overwhelming or scary, the time to do it is now. Every step you can take toward preparedness makes you, your family, and your community a little bit safer.