Eastern Madera County is currently transitioning from a very wet winter to what looks like another long, hot summer - and with that comes the threat of wildfire with the potential destruction of homes and property.
After five years of drought conditions, this year’s welcomed rainfall total of 64.10 inches at the end of April - double the yearly average of 32 inches since 1903 - was both a blessing and a hazard serving as a catalyst for more weeds and brush which contrasts greatly with the meager growth during California’s drought years of 2012-15. This year’s thick crop of grass and brush, along with excess vegetation increases the odds of a wildfire quickly growing out-of-control.
Mix that with the thousands of highly combustible dead yet still standing trees all around us, hit hard by the years of drought and bark beetle infestation, and you have a sure-fire recipe for devastating wildfires.
According to Cal Fire officials, these bug infested and drought ridden trees provide the perfect fuel source during a fire, creating a Roman candle type fuel that can explode, sending debris and embers miles into the air.
“Every year has the potential to be a bad fire season, but this year, with the tree mortality and the tall grasses, there’s a greater risk for devastating wildfires,” said Jaime Williams, Cal Fire Public Information Officer. “It’s important that homeowners create and maintain their defensible space, and have a pre-plan in place. It’s equally as important to remember that one less spark means one less wildfire.”
The number of fires and acres burned throughout California for the period Jan. 1 through May 20 this year was 921 fires, with nearly 15,000 acres burned.
In the most destructive fire in recent memory - the Courtney Fire of Sept. 14, 2014 - 30 homes were destroyed at a loss in excess of $12 million, with the cost of suppressing the fire at $4.4 million.
Doing your part
Cal Fire’s Defensible Space Inspectors (DSI) are in the process of visiting homes within the State Responsibility Area (SRA) to enforce the Defensible Space code.
The code requires residents of California to provide and maintain a defensible space of 100 feet (minimum) around all structures. The DSIs will talk with residents and answer questions on how to keep homes safe.
So, while firefighters are busy performing fire prevention projects and training in preparation for fire season, it’s critical that residents do their part to prepare for wildfires by maintaining their 100 foot clearance around their homes and property to help make it a safer fire season for everyone.
For help in making your home and property firewise, Cal Fire offers an app with step-by-step, ready-for-wildfire checklists, which help homeowners maintain defensible space, harden homes with ignition-resistant building materials, create a family evacuation plan and emergency supply kit, and plan for evacuation. The app also provides guidance on maintaining healthy trees and shrubs, and features customizable alerts that will send a text when Cal Fire responds to a wildfire of 10 acres or more in the vicinity.
Williams stresses the importance of being prepared, and urges all residents to review Cal Fire’s Ready, Set, Go program at www.readyforwildfire.org, where you can download the app and learn how to create defensible space around your home.
Becoming firewise, or hardening your home, goes hand-in-hand with being fire-safe.
According to Roger Maybee, the Madera County Firewise coordinator since 2012, you can start at the top or your structure or home, and work your way down, clearing all combustibles from the roof, gutters, gables, eaves, windows, doors, siding, and out to five feet around the structure.
Then, if you are able to do so, take even bigger steps by installing fire-resistant roofing, boxed eaves, dual pane windows, firewise non-combustible siding, and firebrand-proof venting.
“Studying fire behavior scientifically reveals that you absolutely can alter fire behavior in a good way, by altering conditions on your property,” Maybee said. “Lessening the risk of catastrophic loss in a wildfire is achievable. You can do it.”
While there are no “fireproof” plants, a fire-safe landscape using strategically placed fire-resistant plants can help decrease the risk of fire spreading to your home. Choose high-moisture plants like ice plant, aloe, or rockrose that grow close to the ground, or shrubs like bush honeysuckles, currant, and shrub apples. Maple, poplar and cherry trees are less flammable than pine and fir.
You can also create fire-safe zones with stone walls, patios, decks and roadways. For effective firebreaks, use rock, mulch, flower beds and gardens as ground cover.
For questions, check with area nurseries, or contact UC Cooperative Extension for advice at (916) 876-5338.
One important component of being prepared is having an evacuation plan in place, which includes a designated emergency meeting location outside the fire zone, as well as remaining cognizant of escape routes.
Create an emergency supply kit now - don’t wait till there is a fire. The kit should include an adequate supply of food and water, medications, extra eyeglasses or contact lenses, flashlight, batttery-powered radio with extra batteries, sanitation supplies, a first aid kit, and important documents.
“When an evacuation order is given, leave when you’re told to leave,” Williams emphasized. Should residents decide to stay, she added, “It makes our job more hazardous. Our first goal is to make everybody safe (including firefighters).”
Don’t forget the pets
Pre-arranged evacuation plans should include pets. For smaller pets, practice using a pet carrier to prevent panic in case of an actual evacuation, and for larger pets, like horses, have emergency contact numbers handy. Know where you will take or leave your pets.
If you’re not home, make advance arrangements for a neighbor to check on or transport your pets. Give neighbors your contact numbers. Make sure your pets always wear collars with identification information.
Just as you prepared an emergency supply kit for your family, create a pet disaster preparedness kit for your pets including food and water, a pet carrier (for smaller animals), non-spill food and water bowls, medications, cat litter box and litter, plastic bags for waste, blankets, leashes, toys and treats, as well as veterinary contact information.
If you become trapped by a wildfire
☆ Call 911 and stay calm
☆ Close all vehicle windows and vents
☆ Cover yourself with wool blanket or jacket
☆ Lie on vehicle floor
☆ Call 911 and stay calm.
☆ Go to an area clear of vegetation, a ditch or depression on level ground if possible
☆ Lie face down, cover your body
☆ Stay calm, keep your family together and call 911 to inform authorities of your location
☆ Fill sinks and tubs with cold water
☆ Keep doors and windows closed, but unlocked
☆ Stay inside and stay away from outside walls and windows