Advice on wildfire preparation takes on new urgency


Issue Date: June 19, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

With summer beginning and concerns mounting about another awful wildfire year, authorities encourage Californians to be prepared. It's often familiar advice—but given with new urgency.

Robert Spiegel, a California Farm Bureau Federation policy advocate who works on forestry issues, said it's not too late to make plans—and with fire season now nearly year-round, farm families should be prepared year-round as well, he added.

"We're farmers and ranchers—we prepare for the inevitable challenges," Spiegel said. "Wildfire is just one of those challenges facing California agriculture, our communities and families."

Preparation, he said, includes creating defensible space around the home and being ready to evacuate at a moment's notice.

"Have an emergency bug-out kit with needed medicines, prescriptions, dietary needs, water, batteries and a radio," Spiegel said. "Have easily accessible contact and communications for everyone in the immediate family, sign up for community alerts and warnings, safeguard the most critical documents, make sure your pets have a carrier—some shelters require all pets to be caged—and work with others in your community to arrange emergency protocols for larger animals and available boarding."

Spiegel pointed to the six P's of evacuation preparation promoted by Cal Fire: people (pets), papers, prescriptions, pictures, personal computer and plastic, as in credit cards.

Susie Kocher, a University of California Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor in South Lake Tahoe, said it's never too late to work on creating defensible space, but cautioned against engaging in activities that could cause sparks, such as mowing, in times of red-flag alerts when weather conditions are ripe for rapid fire spread.

"I think the main thing we have learned is that we are all at risk," Kocher said, noting the destruction of homes in suburban neighborhoods caused by embers carried in high winds. "We all have to work together to reduce the risk."

Another lesson learned in recent years, she said, is that fires can move so quickly they can overrun the best evacuation plans.

"I have been hearing much more discussion of shelter-in-place and refuges of last resort from the fire services than ever before," Kocher said, "because it was so obvious that evacuation didn't work as planned in Paradise. We've learned it's important to have backup systems for evacuation alerts and evacuations themselves."

With California's recent history of deadly and destructive fires, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in March, ordering Cal Fire to expedite 35 fire-prevention projects.

Spiegel said the work includes removing hazardous dead trees; vegetation clearing; creation of fuel breaks and defensible spaces around communities; and safer corridors to allow firefighting equipment to get in and evacuating residents to get out. Newsom's declaration exempted these projects from review under the California Environmental Quality Act, to help get them rolling.

"These projects will treat roughly 90,000 acres, significantly less than the 500,000-acre annual goal, but nearly three times the number of acres treated last year," Spiegel said. "In fact, 90,000 acres this year is almost the equivalent of the total number of acres treated in the last three years combined."

In addition, he said, $200 million has been appropriated toward forest-management work via Senate Bill 901, which was enacted last year. The money is included in the 2019-20 state budget sent to Gov. Newsom. Spiegel noted that CFBF played a pivotal role in working with local governments, forestry groups, the California Cattlemen's Association and Western United Dairymen to secure $1 billion in forestry-management funding within SB 901.

On the federal front, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed changes to how the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act, with an eye toward wildfire safety (see story).

"With millions of acres in need of treatment, years of costly analysis and delays are not an acceptable solution," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, "especially when data and experience show us we can get this work done with strong environmental protection standards as well as protect communities, livelihoods and resources."

Closer to home, Kocher said Cal Fire and local fire departments have begun pre-positioning firefighting equipment in times of high fire-weather danger.

Kocher recommended homeowners follow the defensible-space guidelines laid out at ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Wildfire_Preparation_-_Recovery/Landscaping/. People with forest or rangeland property will find tips for fuel reduction at ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Wildfire_Preparation_-_Recovery/Treatment/.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.