Devastating wildfire; could it happen here?By: Brody Fernandez, of Gold Country Media
California is enduring historic wildfires across the state. According to CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) the Camp Fire north of Sacramento and east of Chico is now the most deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. As of Tuesday afternoon, 42 people died and more than 200 people are missing.
Many pets and farm animals have also died in the fire. More than 7,000 structures, including homes, have been destroyed. Gold Country Media asked Placer County fire officials if such a tragedy could happen here.
CAL FIRE Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit spokeswoman Mary Eldridge
Paradise, which was decimated by the Camp Fire, is similar to areas in Placer County, according to CAL FIRE Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit (NEU) spokeswoman Mary Eldridge.
“Yes, it can happen here. Paradise has a very similar topography to parts of Placer County. The only difference between us and Paradise is one less spark,” Eldridge said. “They (Paradise) were more prepared than most, and when relative humidity is low combined with windy conditions, there’s simply nothing you can do. All you need is one spark.”
Placer County residents can take precautions to be better prepared in case a major fire hits the area, according to Eldridge..
“When you wake up in the early morning and there's dew on your grass, that's a good day,” Eldridge said. “You have to pay close attention to those humidity levels. We highly encourage people take care of their defensible space around their property.”
Eldridge recommends residents visit readyforwildfire.org/Defensible-Space for information on creating and maintaining defensible space.
“We also advise taking care of the big P’s, people, pets, pills and paperwork that helps you contact your insurance company if a fire does occur,” Eldridge said. “We advise this because at times they may only have 30 minutes to evacuate their home.”
Attention to detail is crucial when preparing for an evacuation.
“I can't tell you how many times people question whether or not they should leave their home when a fire is present and nearby evacuations are engaged,” Eldridge said. “Even if you are unsure, just go. It’s better to be preemptive. Call it an impromptu vacation to visit family if you want. If all it is in the end is more practice, then it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
The CAL FIRE spokeswoman debunked the myth that Placer County’s urban areas are better protected.
“People would assume that urban areas are more protected but homes also serve as fuel for these fires,” Eldridge said. “A good example of that is the Santa Rosa fires where complete urban areas were covered in ash after the fire took out those urbanized centers.”
And be prepared in your exiting strategies when it comes to transportation.
“If you are in a red flag warning area, the car should have gas in it and be pointed nose out toward the driveway,” Eldridge said. “This way, when you get that call, you will be ready to go.”
Lincoln and Rocklin Fire Chief Bill Hack
Lincoln and Rocklin Fire Chief Bill Hack started his firefighting career as a seasonal firefighter with the CALFIRE/Butte County Fire Department more than 24 years ago and he was also the Chico fire chief.
Hack traveled to Chico with other regional officials Friday morning to assess the Camp Fire damage.
Rocklin and Lincoln firefighters are among those battling the blaze.
“We currently have one engine from Lincoln and one engine from Rocklin working on the Camp Fire,” Hack said. “There are about three to four personnel per engine. Those guys will be up there until they get released.”
The risk profile between Paradise and South Placer “is slightly different,” according to Hack.
“The cities of Rocklin and Lincoln are different than the town of Paradise and have a fundamentally different risk profile,” Hack said. “However, there are communities in Placer County that have similar topography, vegetation type/density and population intermix as the town of Paradise. Therefore, the risk profile is similar.”
The fire chief explained what precautions Rocklin and Lincoln are taking to prepare in case of a major fire.
“Over the last 12-plus months, the city of Rocklin and Lincoln have increased their focus on community risk reduction and specifically vegetation management,” Hack said. “Any homes or businesses in the wildland urban interface or wildland intermix are susceptible to the impacts of wildland fires. Each city is currently reviewing its vegetation management program to see where we can improve: updating codes, optimizing educational outreach and developing effective enforcement strategies.”
But they can only lower the risk in their efforts, Hack stressed.
“Even with very proactive and progressive vegetation management policies, we can only reduce the risk; we cannot eliminate the risk. The bottom line is that in areas such as ours, when there are extreme environmental conditions,” Hack said, “specifically high winds, low humidity and lack of rain, there will always be a risk of devastating vegetation fires in the urban interface and rural communities.”
Rocklin and Lincoln are less susceptible to a fire of the severity and magnitude that Paradise suffered, according to Hack.
“However, I do not want to undervalue the level of risk or susceptibility that both Rocklin and Lincoln have, due to the wildland urban interface threats,” Hack said.
South Placer Fire Deputy Chief Carl Fowler
South Placer Fire is also battling the Camp Fire.
“Currently, we have one engine up there, including four firefighters,” said South Placer Fire Deputy Chief Carl Fowler. ““We have one battalion chief serving as a strike team leader overseeing five other engines from the county as an overhead assignment.”
South Placer Fire advises local residents to use the Placer Alert app to stay informed of fire danger. “
“We have increased staffing and continue to put more people on duty if we need to on red flag days when it’s windy,” Fowler said.
Homeowners taking initiative is the best line of defense if a fire hits Placer County, according to Fowler.
“What really helps us is when homeowners themselves take matters into their own hands to mitigate flammable and combustible materials in and around their homes,” Fowler said.
“Keeping in mind what we have going on in Butte County right now, make sure you are getting rid of excess weeds and vegetation around your home. Don’t compile wood and combustible materials around your home either; those are fuels potential fires have if they occur.”
According to Fowler, homeowners can help lower the risk and prepare for fires in several ways. Keep gutters clean, practice responsible weed abatement, remove low-hanging tree limbs, remove combustible piles of material, have addresses easy to locate in front of the house, and clear roads and driveways, for example.
“With high winds, a fire can bring embers and those can travel easily with materials that could be easily removed. This time of year, the gutters are full of dry leaves and pine needles,” Fowler said, “in Placer County. Get rid of them! There’s a lot of things people can do to make their house less susceptible to burning.”
South Placer Fire officials remind Placer County residents that the statewide burn ban is still in effect.
“Even though it’s cooler outside, it is still very dry and conditions are still not permitting burning anywhere throughout the state,” Fowler said. “There’s no telling when the ban will be lifted, possibly until we get some rain.”
Thinking ahead about wildfires could potentially save your life, Fowler said.
“We still have significant risks with wildland fires here in Placer County with our homes in the area. Have a plan if the worse news comes our way,” Fowler added. “We can rebuild a home. We can’t replace people's lives.”