"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
May 20, 2015
Fire at Your Backdoor Part 1
by Carolyn Nicolaysen

In my last article we discussed preparing for a medical emergency. When the Norovirus struck our grandchildren’s elementary school I was reminded that a pandemic is not the only reason a medical emergency could have you hunkered down at home. It was a tough two weeks while the virus was spreading and a reminder that this can happen to you.

Wildfires are the fastest growing disaster threat in the United States and in many areas of the world. As more people build homes in wooded areas, forests, and rural areas, they put themselves at added risk from wildfire.

Smaller and smaller lot sizes in cities also increase the danger of a fire racing out of control. Combine these factors with drought, excessive heat and/or high winds, and these fires can be nearly unstoppable.

As we drove the length of California this week it was apparent that wildfires are a huge danger this year. The state is drying up at an alarming rate. A similar but not nearly as critical scenario is emerging in other western states.

I remember clearly the Oakland Hills, California, fire in October 1991. It was truly one of the most frightening scenes I ever witnessed. We watched as house after house literally exploded from the heat of the fire.

One minute there was a gorgeous million-dollar home, and in the next minute it was fully engulfed by the inferno. Before the fire was contained, 25 lives were lost and 2,900 structures destroyed in the hills that overlook one of America's largest cities.

In the fall of 2003, a wildfire in San Diego County developed into the most costly fire disaster in California history. Before it was contained it killed 16 people and destroyed 2,427 homes and businesses.

Experts say many San Diego neighborhoods, including Scripps Ranch, are fire traps. They predict that if Santa Ana winds are present the day a fire begins, the fire will be unstoppable and go out only when it reaches the Pacific Ocean.

Experts predict the same fate awaits residents of West Austin, Texas — which they estimate may take only eight hours to burn in a worst-case scenario.

Wildfires often burn unnoticed until fighting them becomes overwhelming. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, outbuildings and homes. No household sprinkler system, fire extinguisher or garden hose is up to the task of containing a wildfire.

There are many things we can do right now to prepare for the upcoming fire season. Begin by learning as much as you can about the history of wildfires in your area. Local government websites are a great resource for this information.

Be aware of weather patterns that can add to the fire danger, such as Santa Ana winds in southern California. A long period without rain, even if not officially a drought, increases the risk of wildfire as vegetation dries out and housing expands into forested areas.

Before Wildfire Threatens:

  • Have a building professional inspect your property and offer recommendations for reducing the wildfire risk.

  • Have a landscaping professional inspect your property and make recommendations for reducing your risks.

  • Regularly clean roof and gutters.

  • Inspect and clean chimneys at least once a year. Make sure you inspect the damper and spark arrester as well.

  • Install 1/2-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, roof and attic.

  • Install a smoke/carbon monoxide detector on each level of your home, especially outside bedrooms. Test batteries monthly and change them once a year. Changing them on the same day each year will help you remember. Choose a day such as a birthday or holiday.

  • Purchase at least one good, large, fire extinguisher (ABC type).

  • Purchase or organize items that can be used as fire fighting tools: a rake, axe, handsaw or chainsaw, hose, bucket, shovel and bag of sand.

  • Enclose eaves and overhangs.

  • Cover house vents with ¼ inch, or smaller, wire mesh. Any attic vent, louver, attic fan, or other opening may allow embers and flaming debris to enter your home and ignite.

  • Use fire resistant siding and roofing materials. If you currently have a shake roof or wood siding, replace it as soon as possible. Shake roofing and wood siding will allow your home to be engulfed in a very short time.

  • Choose safety glass for windows and sliding glass doors. Radiated heat passing through a windowpane can ignite combustible materials inside. Dual- or triple-pane thermal glass, fire resistant shutters, and drapes all help reduce the risk.

  • Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes.

  • Prepare for water storage. After a fire, water supplies may be limited. Create and maintain a small pond, well or pool and store extra water.

  • Install freeze-proof exterior water faucets on at least two sides of your home and near other structures on the property. If you cannot do this make sure you have the materials available to wrap and protect your pipes so in the event of a fire you don’t find yourself without water.

  • Consider purchasing a generator to provide power after the fire has passed. Electric service will probably be down for several days.

  • Make sure your house number is clearly visible from the road making it easier for fire fighters to find your home quickly.

  • Purchase escape ladders for second floor bedrooms.

  • Make a list of the phone numbers, both landline and cell, for your neighbors. We have friends who were involved in the last San Diego wildfire and they never received an evacuation warning but they noticed the flames approaching and called their neighbors’ cell phones, and knocked on their doors as they were evacuating. Thanks to their efforts, everyone on their block made it out safely.

Create a Family Plan:

  • Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach.

  • Teach older children to use a fire extinguisher.

  • Teach your family to have a bucket of sand or water nearby when barbecuing, using tools or toys that create sparks, or when using fireworks.

  • Post fire emergency telephone numbers.

  • Plan several escape routes away from your home — by car and by foot — and practice them as a family.

  • Review with your family how officials will warn you if there is danger.

  • Create a plan in case you are not at home when the emergency arises, and your children need to evacuate.

  • Teach your family about the importance of keeping your property clean to help prevent fires.

  • Plan two exits from your home in case doors or windows are blocked by an exterior fire. Practice evacuating using both exits.

  • Practice evacuating your home in the middle of the night.

  • Plan how your family will stay in touch if you are separated by a wildfire. All family members should know the name and phone number for your out-of-state contact.

  • Choose a meeting place outside your neighborhood in case you can't return home. Hold a drill to practice gathering at this location.

  • Post emergency telephone numbers by every phone and teach your children how and when to use them.

Create a Neighborhood Plan

Talk to your neighbors about what they are doing now to prepare for the fire season and how they might be able to respond to fire reports in the area. There may be things you can do together to prevent the spread of fire, and to survive if one occurs:

  • Gather and distribute a list of home and cell phone numbers for emergencies.

  • Decide on a channel to use on walkie talkies to communicate during a crisis.

  • Identify potential fire hazards.

  • Determine which hazards can be corrected by working together.

  • Notify the proper authorities to correct the problem

  • Identify roadways which are blocked or poorly marked. During a fire the line down the center of the road may be your only guide. If roads need attention notify the city or county authorities.

  • Create a plan for how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Make a list of your neighbors' skills such as medical, construction or technical.

  • Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs such as seniors or people with disabilities.

  • Make plans to take care of children who may be on their own if their parents can't get home.

  • Make a list of neighbors with heavy equipment and other fire fighting tools.

  • Develop a neighborhood plan for things that need to be done.

  • Develop a neighborhood phone tree.

  • Plan a neighborhood meeting with the fire department to have questions answered and to get advice.

Create a Safety Zone Around Your Home

Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. All vegetation is fuel for a wildfire, though some trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. The greater the distance between your home and the vegetation, the greater your protection.

You can take steps now to reduce the potential for disaster. Homes built in pine forests should have a minimum safety zone of 100 feet. Fire spreads very quickly uphill. Homes built on a steep slope therefore, will require additional protection. The steeper the slope, the more open space you will need to protect your home. All other homes should have a 30 foot safety zone around them.

  • Move shrubs and other landscaping away from the sides of the house.

  • Cut and water lawns often.

  • Prune branches and shrubs to allow for 15 feet between vegetation and chimneys and stove pipes.

  • Prune tree limbs 15 feet above the ground.

  • Prune tree limbs so they don’t overhang the roof.

  • Replace highly flammable vegetation such as pine, eucalyptus, junipers and firs with less flammable varieties. If in doubt, ask your local fire department or landscape professional for suggestions.

  • Remove vines from the walls of your house, out buildings and garden walls.

  • Remove all dead tree branches from the ground-level up (these act as ladder fuels for the approaching fire).

  • Clear the area of leaves, brush, and fallen limbs.

  • Remove debris from under sun decks and porches.

  • Replace wooden decks with non-combustible materials such as concrete, brick, rock, or man-made materials. Building a deck structure at ground level will eliminate the danger of a fire starting under a deck.

  • Use non-combustible patio furniture and covers.

  • Adding a brick or rock wall around your property will help prevent a grass fire from threatening your home.

  • Patios and pools are also great improvements in a 30-foot safety zone.

  • When possible, install electrical lines underground.

  • If you notice branches around power lines ask the power company to clear them.

  • Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch.

  • Stack firewood 100 feet away and uphill from any structure.

  • Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers away from your home.

  • Keep the gas grill and propane tank at least 15 feet from any structure. Clear an area 10 feet around the grill.

  • Clear at least a 10-foot area around propane tanks.

  • Dispose of newspapers. Do not allow them to stack up.

  • Place stove, fireplace and grill ashes in a metal bucket far from structures. Soak with water.

  • Have garden hoses that are long enough to reach any area of your home and other structures on your property.

  • Spend some time the next two weeks preparing for a wildfire. This can happen to you!

Next time we will discuss what to do when the warning comes that your home is in the path of distruction.

Questions or suggestions for future articels? Contact Carolyn at: Carolyn@TotallyReady.com. Add non-food items to your preparedness plan today, for tips visit https://www.facebook.com/TotallyReady

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About Carolyn Nicolaysen

Carolyn Nicolaysen grew up in New Jersey and joined the Church while attending Central College in Pella, Iowa. With a degree in Home Economics, she later worked as a high school teacher, and served as an elected trustee of her local school board. Carolyn has taught personal and family preparedness to all who will listen. Having lived in areas that were threatened by winter storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, and now living in an earthquake prone area, she has developed a passion for preparedness. Carolyn started her own business, TotallyReady, when she saw the need for higher quality emergency information that could truly sustain families in a disaster.

Carolyn is FEMA trained and is an Amateur Radio first responder. She serves as Relief Society president of her California ward.

Carolyn is the author of three ebooks, Mother Hubbard, What She's Doing Now (food storage for the 21st century), Prep Not Panic (preparing for a pandemic of medical emergency) and That Won't Happen to Me (a discussion of disaster preparations). She has also authored a glove box book, Totally Ready for the Road and writes a monthly newsletter and the Totally Ready facebook page.

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