A Few Thoughts on Preparing for Fire Season

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

I’m supposed to be working on a fire recovery and preparedness guide for San Diego, but my CNPS energy is going into conservation work for fairly obvious reasons.

That said, the weather has predictably turned hot and dry, and all that lovely vegetation that grew this spring is drying out and becoming flammable. Since Cal Fire is telling everyone to prepare and create an evacuation guide, but not really telling how to do it or what should be in it, I figured I’d put some ideas out.

Note that I *am not* a fire expert, and this is merely an opinion that I offer in the hopes that it might help you figure out how to make your own fire plan. The only reason I suggest it is that the putative experts aren’t being very helpful either.

For example, the expert guidance available from the County right now tells you to create an emergency kit that includes among other things, a “Watch or clock – non-electric”, and a “Plug-in analog telephone,” as if you have these ready to go (http://www.readysandiego.org/content/oesready/en-us/BuildaKit.html). What’s going on here, is that the writers assumed people won’t prepare at all, so they want people to create a single “disaster kit” for all disasters. What they’ve created looks like an earthquake kit, but that earthquake kit, which is designed to help you stay in your house for a few days, is not what you want to lug to your car if you need to evacuate rapidly during a wildfire.

The key to my thinking is a simple method called “inverse sequence planning.” It’s widely used by the military and many others. You start by defining your goals, then you work step by step backwards until you get to where you are now. Then you turn it around and you’ve got a plan.

For a fire, your goals are likely (in decreasing order of importance): keeping yourself, your loved ones, housemates, and neighbors safe, keeping your pets safe, keeping your digital life and treasured items safe, keeping your home safe, and keeping your yard safe. Obviously your priorities may vary, but the idea is that you’ll sacrifice your yard to save yourhome and everything in it, sacrifice your home if you can get out with your important stuff safely, or sacrifice your stuff if necessary to you get out with your family and pets safely.

The first step is trying to get a handle on how much dangeryou are in. You can see if you’re in a very high fire hazardzone by working through the interactive map in this Los Angeles Times article (https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-me-california-buildings-in-fire-zones). I did, and I found out that the very high fire hazard zone ends three doors downfrom my house. Since I can’t tell the difference among the properties between the edge and me, I assume I’m in the zone, just to be safe. If you’re way outside any fire threat zone, probably you can worry less.

The next step is to go back to that ranking of what’s mostimportant to you and to use it to create a checklist for how to evacuate, thereby giving yourself a plan for getting yourself and your most important stuff out. I’d suggest something likethe following:

Things to include in your evacuation checklist (in roughly descending order of importance):

  • Relatives, housemates, and guests who live with you

  • Car keys (and the vehicles they belong to)—you need something to evacuate in.

  • Wallet (drivers license or picture ID and credit card)—you will need ID with your current address to get back in after the fire.

  • Phone and phone charger—so that you can stay in contact

  • Pets in carriers, on harnesses, and/or leashes.

  • Eyeglasses (list them higher if you need them to drive).

  • Medicines and medical devices

  • Laptop (especially if you work at home) and charger

  • Important papers, password manager, computer backups, cash, etc. (prepping these now will make your life easier later)

  • Clothes and toiletries. This is equivalent to packing for being away for a week, plus your business clothes for a week (if you plan to work through the disaster), plus a set of outdoor clothes, gloves, boots, goggles, hat, and N-95 dust mask or respirator. You may be sorting through the ashes when you return, and it’s easier to have the gear already.

  • Pet supplies (food, meds, security blankets, etc.)

  • Keepsakes. These are the small things that you’d reallyregret losing: prized photos, your favorite jewelry, the cookbook with all the holiday recipes, family heirlooms, that memento from the trip that changed your life, your favorite guitar, whatever. Hopefully this won’t be more than a dufflebag’s worth of stuff. No, you can’t pack your library, your workshop, or your native plant collection. Many first responders are trained to pack this

    well before any emergency.

  • Neighbors who have mobility issues and can’t evacuate on their own. If you have space in your vehicle, give them a call with 10 minutes’ warning when you’re preparing toevacuate, tell them to grab their meds and phone and get ready, and then give them a ride out if they need it.

    One way to speed up the evacuation is to pack the night before. That’s actually possible if you watch the weather regularly or have your phone set to give you red flag warnings. The weather forecasts are good enough to give usup to a week’s warning in advance of a red flag event. If you’re worried, pack clothes and keepsakes up the night before, so they’re ready to go. Obviously packing for every red flag event will get tedious, but remember, it’s not a failure if you pack but don’t evacuate, it’s practice for that one time you do have to evacuate.

    This is to help you evacuate from a fire. The next step in the inverse sequence planning is to protect your home and yard.

    Here, I’m not going to talk about installing a big cistern and under-eave sprinklers, although those are great if you can set them up (https://californiachaparralblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/exterior-fire-sprinklers-saved-188-properties-wet-homes-dont-burn). What I’m going to focus on instead is something that doesn’t get discussed much: maintenance.

    The basic idea is to make sure there’s no place for embers to enter your home, no place where embers can ignite a fire on your home, that there’s a space between your garden and your home, and that your garden, if it catches fire, will smolder and go out, rather than catching your home on fire.

    One of the keep steps here is to remove tinder and kindling, meaning fine, dry material like dead grass, old brooms, and so forth. Get the grass not just cut, but raked up and in thegreen waste bin. Ditto for fine plant materials. Now’s the time to weed and prune. Clear tree canopy up off the ground and make sure shrubs underneath are pruned down so they won’t catch any trees on fire. Clear the dead leaves off your roof and especially out of your gutters. Move the firewood well away from your home, and in general, establish a 5’ firebreak around your home. And water your garden early in red flag weather so that the plants are well-hydrated. That willmake them more fire resistant. Don’t bother turning on the sprinklers when you evacuate, because if they’re already fighting a fire in your neighborhood, there won’t be any water pressure to make your sprinklers work.

    There’s a lot of good advice in the County’s Ready Set Go booklet: https://www.sandiego.gov/fire/safety/tips/readysetgo. The problem is that it’s not well organized, so things that require a lot of work (like a new roof or remodeling your home) are listed side by side with simple house maintenance (cleaning pine needles out of gutters) and simple fixes (putting metal mesh screens on all your roof vents). I’d suggest getting the guide, but make your own list of what you can do now (the maintenance) and what must be put off until later (the remodel for fire safety), and don’t be afraid to apply your own priorities to what they suggest in that guide.

    There’s a lot more I could say, and I will say it once I get a chance to finish the guide. In closing, I do sincerely hope none of us needs this advice this year.