I retrieved my “go bag” once again when the Kincade Fire broke out in Sonoma County, and I saw this weekend’s forecast. Fire officials are bracing for extreme winds to sweep across Northern California, still brittle and dry from the summer.
The state is again primed to burn.
Between now and the next time it rains, all it will take is one spark, one bolt of lightning, some wind, and your community could be the next Redding, the next Santa Rosa, the next Paradise. Fires smoldering right now across the state could flare up again in the heavy winds.
Are you ready?
I’ve covered Northern California wildfires for much of my 15 years as a journalist. They range from “little” fires like the 600-acre Mountain Fire that burned seven homes in August near Redding, to last year’s Camp Fire, which ravaged the town of Paradise in what became the most destructive fire in California history. Eighty-five people died.
While I’m no fire scientist or evacuation planner, I’ve spoken to my share of evacuees, some of them covered in sweat and soot and shaking from frantically fleeing their burning neighborhoods. I’ve interviewed dozens of wildfire and law enforcement experts. I’ve helped investigate why fire evacuations and emergency alerts failed.
Ask yourself this question: Are you ready to go if you’re woken up in the middle of the night to a deputy beating on your door, telling you to “Leave “NOW!”? This is critical if you live in a place where the winds blow hard in the dry months.
Every big gust has the potential to push embers a mile or more ahead of the flames. Entire neighborhoods can go up in minutes.
Fire safety tips
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years that might make you a little bit safer, especially if you’re one of the 350,000 Californians living in towns and cities that exist almost entirely within “very high fire hazard severity zones” — Cal Fire’s designation for places highly vulnerable to devastating wildfires.
- Keep your gas tank full, and pack the things you couldn’t live without if your home burned down. Keep them close to your door or in your car. Consider keeping outdoor pets inside. Far too many people are forced to leave their animals behind, or they waste precious minutes trying to gather their terrified animals, which bolt and hide from the sirens, the panic and the smoke.
- Sign up for emergency cellphone alerts offered by a growing number of rural sheriff’s offices and disaster agencies, and keep your cell phone charged and on at night so you can actually hear them. Religiously watch wind forecasts and “red flag” warnings for your region, especially before you go to bed. The wine country fires in October 2017 started at night. Many people were still sleeping last November when the Camp Fire erupted as the sun was coming up.
- Be ready to leave even if officials don’t give you an official evacuation order. Our reporting has shown over and over that emergency alert systems are spotty at best and phone notifications often can’t keep up with a windstorm-driven fire. Plus, many communities have shoddy evacuation plans and nightmarish escape routes. You could get stuck in traffic for hours if you wait too long. Some of the people who died in Paradise burned to death in their cars, stuck in the gridlock.
- Make “defensible space” a way of life. Remember: all it takes is one ember and your home could go up, becoming fuel that could burn down the entire neighborhood. In fire-prone areas, you’re required to clear excess vegetation on your property. That means maintaining a five-foot “non-combustible zone” immediately around the house — no leaf litter, bark, bushes, cardboard or firewood piles stacked against your siding. Make sure your gutters are clear of leaves and pine needles. Further out, make sure there’s adequate open space between trees, shrubs and other vegetation. Because enforcement can be lax, homeowners often need to police themselves. Experts say far too many houses in some of the state’s most fire-prone areas have highly flammable trees and brush growing right up against siding and hanging over roofs.
- Consider retrofitting an older home. McClatchy’s reporting shows that homes in the Camp Fire built after 2008 had a much higher rate of survival. That’s the year the state began requiring homes in fire zones to be built with fire-resistant roofs and siding, fine mesh screens on attic vents to protect against wind-blown embers, and dual-paned windows to withstand the heat. If you still have a roof with wood shake shingles, you’re asking for trouble.
- Lastly, even if you don’t live in a fire zone, check in with your elderly or infirm friends or family who do and see if they’re thinking about these things, and are ready to go. I really don’t want to write any more stories about burned kids and grandparents.