By Sue McCourt
Fire Prevention Specialist, Plumas County Office of Emergency Services
It is Day 14 for my community of Cromberg and Sloat to be on an Evacuation Advisory from the Claremont Fire. A lot of things have crossed my mind during the past two weeks. There is so much that has happened since the first lightning hit our area and the Claremont Fire started on August 17th. Multiple large fires were burning all over the north state, our local firefighters had new starts and fires that were burning had changing fire behavior and direction of travel. First response resources were stretched past the breaking point in our state, every county and every community.
Our firefighters and fire managers were tasked with fighting these multiple fires along with law enforcement agencies that also responded to at least nine of our communities in Plumas County that had to either be evacuated or had to be ready on a moment’s notice to leave over the past two weeks.
In my community, we all had been waiting for the dreaded “CODE RED” alert that we were expecting next. When I got my alert there was no mistake about it. I had signed up our cell phones for everyone at our home. I have a landline still just for this kind of occasion, (figured “old school” was still king for notification), and had put the FEMA app on my cell phone. The notification came in and every alert went off at the same time. Cell call, landline, email and text. This worked for us as we were all physically in the area of the advisory where the CODE RED notification was issued. Our alert was sent Aug. 24 at 7:14 p.m.: “This is the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office with an Evacuation Advisory Alert for the communities of Cromberg and Sloat due to a wildfire. Please make preparations to evacuate. If you have special needs you may want to evacuate now. If you have large animals you should make arrangements to move them immediately. If the situation changes, additional alerts may be sent with updated information.”
A lot happened that night of Aug. 24. My neighbor down the road put out the call on Facebook for help to relocate his bees out of the area. An extraordinary person came to help a person he had never met move 80 hives of the precious pollinator bees so vital to our ecosystem out of the area! Other neighbors loaded up horses and moved them to Mohawk Valley. Thank goodness they had a plan in place and had practiced moving their horses into trailers.
No one got much sleep that night, not knowing what the next day would bring. There was a very good chance we were going be under Mandatory Evacuation like our neighboring communities to the west. The next morning there was lots of movement throughout our community. People were taking this seriously. Cars were packed up, trailers and boats were getting moved, people were doing more raking and clearing around their homes. It had been several years since Cromberg and Sloat had been threatened by a wildfire directly so close.
Our community (Sloat, Cromberg and Camp Layman) is one of 21 nationally recognized Firewise Communities in Plumas County. For the past three years we have been talking about fire preparedness, having evacuation plans and defensible space. We’ve hosted community educational events and toured homes to get ideas about how homes are vulnerable to wildfire and things we can do to make our homes more likely to withstand a wildfire. As expected, not everyone came to our events – people are busy, some thought they knew it all, and others that came to our Firewise events were like sponges, absorbing everything.
The Firewise framework does work though, as neighbors started talking to neighbors sharing ideas. Our small post office became the hub for fire prevention handouts and our local Fire Department had their doors open for people to stop by. People were talking and connecting and sharing their ideas about what they were doing and where they were going all while taking Covid precautions. That certainly created a new challenge to “old school” face to face communication. Adapting our “face to face” communications style took some modifying to ensure we kept each other safe in our new Covid environment.
A lot of information is available on-line to help you create your plan and access and correct the vulnerabilities of your home. The Plumas Firesafe Council’s new LIVING WITH WILDFIRE magazine arrived right at the start of our fires. It is available throughout our county at Post Offices and numerous other locations. A digital version is available at: www.plumasfiresafe.org.
We all need to be vigilant NOW whether or not you are near one of the communities associated with an evacuation advisory. Have your plan in place and prepare your home for EMBERS. Statistics clearly show how the majority of homes do not burn because of fast moving, crowning wildfire. They burn because small embers found a home in something that could burn. The new LIVING WITH FIRE magazine has great information and checklists for your use.
Defensible space and home hardening tips you can accomplish right now, focusing directly around your home include:
- First 5 feet from your home.Get rid of anything combustible next to the house. Move it away or inside the closed garage. No recycling cans, old scrap wood, firewood or newspaper. Look at that first 5 feet closely. There should be no wooden bark, no weeds, nothing dead in this area. If you have plants, consider trimming them keep them well watered. Think embers: do you feel comfortable that you could drop a lit match in this area and it would not carry fire to the structure?
- Got cushions on your metal furniture? Keep them inside the house if you are not there. It’s a great place for an ember to land.
- Water and hoses.Hook up hoses and sprinklers to your hose bib. A “gated wye” to run two hoses is great if you have the water pressure. Spray nozzles are great. Have them available and ready to go if needed. Remember if you are on a community water system, you do not want to drain the community tanks by leaving them running 24 hours a day. Firefighters may need this water for fighting fires.
- Fire tools.Place your “fire tools”- shovels, rakes and kind of scraping tools together in a good location. You don’t want to be digging deep in the garage when you really need them.
- Put some water stashes around your home. Fill large trashcans with water, have buckets available to dose any hot spots you might find.
- Ladders. If you have a ladder place it next to your house in case fire fighters need it.
- Volatile plants. Have you got junipers close to the house? Get rid of them if you can. These are known as “little green gas cans” due to their resinous nature and can catch fire easily.
- Fences. Got a wooden fence? If it is attached to the house it is part of the house and can act as a wick to the house if it catches fire. Pay attention to things you have stored next to the fence and get them away. Clear around that fence too. If you have a wooden gate consider replacing it with a metal gate in the future. Firefighters will often open the gate to create a fire break.
- Gutters and the roof.Clean those gutters often! This is a perfect location for an ember to land. Check the valleys of your roof for accumulation of pine needles and behind skylights. Consider hardening your home with gutter screens or removing them all together.
- These can create a vulnerability to your home. If a fire is close, embers can enter into your home through your vent. Short term options for now are to cover your vents with plywood, cover with 1/8” metal screen (research has shown this diameter has good success keeping embers out) or cover vents with metal tape.
- Keep it clean. Check out the spots between the deck boards where debris gathers. Ensure the deck structure has clearance around any place the wood meets the ground.
- BBQ’s Evacuation preparation includes disconnecting propane cylinders and moving them, as well as charcoal and lighter fluid away from the home.
- Firewood. Move it off the deck and away from the home. No storing firewood close to the house, it is a huge vulnerability for embers.Options including covering woodpiles with tarps. Fire resistant tarps are also available on line.
This is a partial list; please check out www.readyforfire.org for more tips. With this unprecedented fire season we are experiencing, keep connected with your neighbors, have situational awareness, and have a good family communication plan in case of evacuation. Plumas News, the U.S. Forest Service in coordination with the Incident Management Teams managing our wildfires in the county and Plumas County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook are posting regular updates online.
Be sure to sign up for CODE RED Plumas County’s Emergency Alert System. Sign up at www.plumascounty.us on the home page.
Below is a checklist that can be printed out and used.Tips Sheet