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Annual BurnWise workshop provides valuable information

Julie Ruiz demonstrates the use of a moisture meter, with well-seasoned wood ideally at 20 percent or less moisture content before burning to avoid wasting energy and creating excessive creosote and PM2.5. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

The Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) held a Fall BurnWise Workshop at the Portola Veteran’s Hall on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 23.

Attendees gathered in the main hall and visited with representatives of Portola Firewise, City of Portola Mayor Pro Tem Phil Oels, and Dave Rudolph, before a brief introduction from City of Portola Mayor Tom Cooley.

Cooley welcomed all to the event, thanking the air district representatives for their ongoing work in helping the community breathe more freely and prepare for fire danger.

“These people are making really valuable contributions to our community. There is a lot of valuable information being shared today that we can all put to good use around your own properties,” Cooley said with a smile as he introduced Julie Ruiz of the NSAQMD.

Ruiz welcomed all to the event, thanking Mayor Cooley and City Manager Lauren Knox for their support of the workshop. She then went on to explain that the most well-known NSAQMD program, the Portola Woodstove Change-Out Program, was only one of many things made possible to the community due to EPA funding, along with events like that day’s workshop.

“We have these EPA funds because the air quality here is not what it should be,” Ruiz said. “Today is a perfect air day- — it’s warm, no air pollution issues. However, most of the winter, we have inversions at night and early in the morning that push wood smoke down into the breathing zone.”

Ruiz explained that the Portola area is currently in a status known as “non-attainment,” based on an annual average of particulate matter, or PM2.5, which is caused by combustion of wood in fire.

“What do we do about that?” Ruiz asked the room. She went on to note that despite the topographical challenges of the area, one of the biggest projects continues to be the woodstove change-out program, which has been very successful.

“However, when you look at air sampling data, it hasn’t improved a tremendous amount,” Ruiz stated. “So, there’s other things going on, and we are looking for help and feedback from the community on how to reduce smoke in the community.”

Ruiz went on to discuss ways to reduce smoke through best burning practices, highlighting the importance of a hot fire and wood fuel quality. “If your wood has a high moisture content, it’s not going to burn well and it’s going to waste a lot of energy,” Ruiz explained.

Ruiz moved on to touch on the topic of wood storage, using the example of the wood sheds built by Ben Harston’s students at Portola Junior/Senior High School, inviting all to enter the prize drawing for one of four sheds being given away.

“Smoke in the air is a public health issue, but we’re also talking about the immediate safety of your home and the surrounding area,” Ruiz said, introducing Dave Rudolph of Portola Firewise to speak briefly on the topic.

Rudolph introduced himself as a long-time resident of the area, as well as a retired forest service employee of 30 years, and went on to speak first of the good faith efforts that had been put forth on the part of the developers of the Portola 192 project, and the work that Rudolph had been putting in as well to address concerns about brush encroachment.

“If you do nothing else, remove vegetation up against the house,” Rudolph said. He went on to briefly cover a defensible space checklist with the goal of having proper fire safe clearances.

Rudolph invited anyone who needed assistance assessing their property for proper fire clearance to contact him at 832-4005 or to reach out to Phil Oels at 832-5047.

Rudolph also explained how important it is for Portola to be a Firewise Community, with volunteer time-log sheets available at City Hall for members of the community to fill out and turn in as proof of the time spent getting the community prepared in the event of wildfire.

Cooley stepped up to add, “If you make the call and you get Dave or Phil to help you, you are going to get guys that really know what they are doing. They have spent their lives in the woods, and as firefighters. If you are at a point of needing help due to health or finances, please let us know. We have volunteers willing to help you, so don’t let those things fail to let you make these improvements to your property.”

Ruiz also added that being a recognized Firewise community can also positively impact home insurance, a hot topic as many have growing trouble finding or keeping home owners’ insurance.

Ruiz then introduced speaker Sue McCourt, Fire Prevention Specialist of Plumas County OES. After distributing a handout about fire safety in and around the home, McCourt thanked all for their attention, as well as calling attention to the importance of engaging in Firewise activities.

“Make your hours count,” McCourt said, promoting the Firewise program and encouraging the community to log time spent in fuel reductions, adding that those logs can be dropped off at the Portola City Hall.

McCourt then went on to discuss winter fire safety tips, which include keeping smoke and carbon monoxide detectors up to date and regularly examined.

“They really do save lives,” McCourt said. “Also think about escape routes from your home, especially if you have a second story — you want two ways out of every room. This is especially important for those with physical disabilities, elderly, disabled.”

McCourt also noted the importance of having a family meeting plan in place in the event that the family were to be separated. “Build your plan around everyone’s abilities,” she said.

McCourt went on to note that cooking is the number one cause for house fires and heating the number two cause. “It’s important to keep heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces clear with a space of at least three feet,” McCourt said. “If you leave the room, turn it off.”

The importance of properly disposing of ashes, preferably in a metal container with a lid, was touched upon, with reminders that ashes and coals from wood stoves stay hot a lot longer than people usually think.

“Don’t cause a fire cleaning your wood stove out,” McCourt said. “Wait, scoop the ashes and check them for coolness, and if you want to be really safe, you can drown the ashes with water as well, but typically wait a week before you dispose of your ashes, storing the container on cement or cleared dirt away from the house.”

It was also noted how important it is to be smart with electricity, never plugging heat producing appliances into extension cords, as well as maintaining generator safety by keeping generators away from the home by at least five feet.

McCourt touched on other potential fire hazards, from candles to falling asleep smoking in bed. “It’s also important to remember to be cautious if there is medical oxygen in the house,” she said.

Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District (EPRFPD) Captain Elaine Frank commented that clothes dryers are also responsible for many house fires, along with paper shredders left plugged in, allowing the internal laser to start a blaze.

After some brief discussion, Ruiz went on to demonstrate the use of a moisture meter on split wood to determine if it was burnable, with the ideal moisture content below 20 percent.

Ruiz encouraged people to think about how they will keep their wood dry, as well as noting that excess moisture in wood causes the buildup of creosote in chimney flues, which can lead to a fire.

Ruiz noted that the air district would love to hear ideas on ways they can help the community keep a dryer wood supply, and after some further interaction, the workshop concluded with Steve Kreth giving a demonstration of a flue fire in front of the Veteran’s Hall.

For more information on how to get involved in keeping the air in Portola clear or for any other questions, contact the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District at 832-0102 or visit myairdistrict.com.

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