“We were recently notified of our new designation as a nationally recognized Firewise Community,” stated Chester Fire Public Information Officer Karen Lichti.
The designation, however, is just the first step of a comprehensive program that’s in its early stages, she said.
In other words, “Chester needs to do a lot more work to protect against wildland fires.”
To qualify for the title of a Firewise community, five projects were listed in the submitted application, including undertaking a process of substantially increasing public awareness through a series of outreach programs and open meetings.
“Chester residents need to know what they must do to get ready,” should the unthinkable happen and suddenly face a conflagration.
Lichti said the Chester Fire Department would begin implementing those five initiatives in the coming weeks, beginning with clearing large areas of dry brush, such as that found behind the hills at Martin Ranch, a Sierra Pacific Industries property, which is already underway.
The second project the department has in mind is to thin out or remove trees and brush from 35 to 50 acres along the length of Chester Airport Road, because of the potential for embers being created should a fire find its way there.
Next, she said that behind the houses along 4th Avenue there are a large number of overgrown willow trees on PG&E property that have to be removed.
“It’s quite a fire hazard,” she said, adding that CFD will be contacting the company to get permission to clear out the trees to provide a buffer zone for homes in the vicinity that could be threatened by a fire.
In addition, “Every year we plan to have a community work day in May,” starting in 2019, where “we will ask residents to make sure they establish firebreaks” where applicable by “clearing a space around their homes of all and any flammable materials.”
Lichti said they hope to ask volunteers to pitch in to help seniors who can’t do the work themselves.
“Everything we’re doing is emphasizing that everybody needs to create more defensible space around their homes to make their properties more resilient to possible attack by fire.”
Finally, “We are going to have several community meetings,” starting in February, for the public to receive information on how to “’harden their homes against fire,” which can affect anyone at any time, as the tragedy that overwhelmed the town of Paradise can attest.
CFD has free Firewise materials detailing ways to mitigate fire hazards around homes and businesses at its main office, 251 Chester Airport Road.
Lichti further mentioned that it’s especially critical to have a to-go bag, suitcase or backpack at the ready for each member of the household, filled with essential items like extra clothing that can be grabbed at a moment’s notice.
It should also include medications, a cell phone and charger, and other important items, should you need to make a quick exit.
Also, include a cage and provisions for the family pet, as well as an evacuation plan and a meeting place outside the fire area in case people are split up for some reason or if family members are apart when the evacuation order is given.
Having an outside person who can be a liaison for members of your family and friends will allow those who have been separated a way to reconnect with one another later.
“Many of the people in Paradise just ran out of their homes with almost nothing but what was on their backs,” Lichti lamented.
That’s all part of being Firewise, she insisted, “not just getting your home hardened to reduce fire hazards, but by being ready to evacuate with minutes to spare.”
Chester Fire Chief Joe Waterman expressed deep concern that the conflagration that decimated the town of Paradise (pop. 27,000) killing over 80 people with more than 500 missing could, under the right circumstances, happen to Chester and Westwood as well.
“It just took around four hours for the Camp Fire to completely go through the town of Paradise” which is phenomenally fast, Waterman noted, about the same time it took for the flames to reach town from its point of origin, he added.
Despite the best efforts of thousands of firefighters from a number of fire districts that responded statewide, including CalFire, “the spread of the flames was very, very rapid, and exceedingly difficult to contain.”
Waterman doubts the town of Paradise will be rebuilt any time soon, given the overall devastation.
“To reestablish a community that large is extremely challenging and will take many, many years in fact.”
Even the few businesses that remained essentially unscathed no longer have the necessary population to support commerce.
“This also means the tax base is gone,” Waterman said, hindering Butte County as a whole.
“That’s one of the reasons it takes so long to recover,” he continued, “and why federal disaster assistance is so important.”
Waterman said it’s possible that what happened to Paradise (a type of burn called a wildland-urban interface fire), could happen in Chester too, “given high wind conditions that are particularly strong one day, with low relative humidity, along with super dry fuels that are currently available,” although he added that he is more concerned for Prattville or the Peninsula because of the terrain there.
“The main thing to understand about the fire that went through Paradise wasn’t that a solid wall of flame swept across town,” he explained, “but rather as the fire approaches, its primary mechanism of spread is to throw hot embers ahead of itself, which ignite hundreds of spot fires, each of which then grows into a larger blaze.”
That’s why when people tried to evacuate by foot or vehicle, they had fires raging all around them, Waterman pointed out.
“This is why we have concerns in all of our communities; homeowners failing to clean up the fuels like pine needles and other flammable debris around homes, so there are fewer places for spot fires to take hold.”
Waterman reminds people, too, that fire personnel can be stretched thin, especially if they are on calls fighting wildfires far away.
For example, “In the situation like they had in Paradise and Magalia, fire departments were overwhelmed. There simply aren’t enough fire trucks in Northern California.”
In other words, “You can’t get them all in the same place at the same time before a massive fire has grown substantially.”
It’s key, Waterman continued, that “we work to educate the public as part of the Firewise program” that’s now being implemented in Chester. “We need to train people to adapt in a fire-prone area such as ours.”
That education doesn’t just deal with the aspect of removing potential fuel sources and creating clearances around homes.
It’s also about having an evacuation plan, “which is vital,” Waterman insisted, so people aren’t waiting until the last minute when flames are at your doorstep.
Chester Fire Department urges residents to sign-up online at www.countyofplumas.com for the CodeRED program, a free service that allows for the county to contact residents directly through the Office of Emergency Services by cell phone message or text, or by sending an email during an emergency to let people know whether there’s an approaching wildfire, flood conditions, downed power lines, lost individuals and abductions, or the need to evacuate.
Click in the green box “Emergency alert system sign ups.” Once the page loads click on the “Click here to register your contact info” and follow the directions to complete the sign up.
Anyone seeking assistance to register can call the toll-free number at 866-939-0911, from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. Registration is confidential and free.