The SoCal Way
“Ready, Set, Go!” program simplifies & emphasizes wildland fire safety education
By Jim Crawford
By the time this article is published, the wildfire season will have passed yet again. Although people continue to argue about whether and how much climate change is caused by humans, the intensity and duration of the fire season seems to be getting worse.
Southern California is to wildfire what Florida is to hurricanes: Southern California firefighters experience wildland fires often enough that we look to them for expertise in how to deal with wildfires and how to prepare for them. Preventing them is also still a goal, and we don’t have to look much further than the old Smokey Bear safety messages to figure out how to teach people about who can prevent wildfires (and how). But each season, some of the largest fires turn out to be arson, reminding us that some people set such fires on purpose. We can only hope that they’re caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And then there’s lightning, but it’ll be a long time before we figure out how to keep lightning from starting wildfires.
So that leaves us with mitigation strategies to limit the fuel loads and protect structures in the path of wildfires. For an update on the latest Southern California mitigation strategies, I appealed to Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) Fire Marshal Laura Blaul.
“Ready, Set, Go”
The OCFA has a program that’s a great example of putting together all the prevention pieces for a very complex situation. With more and more homes being built in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), wildland fires are increasingly threatening homes and lives. Combine that reality with people’s increasing desire to maintain natural cover as much as possible, and we have a growing fire threat of monumental proportions.
The OCFA’s WUI safety education program is called “Ready, Set, Go.” Those three words describe the sequence of events that encompass its WUI educational messages.
I really like the simplicity of the message—much like, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” It’s simple enough to remember and to be repeated often enough until it sinks into the conscious brain like a bad jingle for a mattress company. Like the Smokey Bear messages, it draws people toward more in-depth understanding of what the words actually mean.
But the OCFA’s safety campaign isn’t limited to a jingle. They’ve produced a brochure that goes into great detail about each step. For example, “Ready” begins by acknowledging the fact that there just aren’t enough fire engines to protect every property from wildfire. So people must take some individual responsibility for getting their own homes ready to withstand a wildfire with minimal or no protection.
Getting ready in this case means creating defensible space. Like many jurisdictions, Orange County has realized that the norms called for in the Urban Wildland Interface Code may not be achievable. However, some people don’t have 30 feet of defensible space around their home because they don’t have that much property between their home and the next. Property owners must do the best they can on small lots. But if there is room, the OCFA espouses up to 100 feet of managed vegetation space around homes, but notes that without it, a home may not be defensible.
Then the “hardened” home portion of the OCFA’s safety messages goes into roofing and vent and siding materials that can further protect a home during a wildfire.
Once the safety features are in place, the “Set” portion of the message refers to preparing a family disaster plan. Like a home escape plan, this disaster plan entails escape if a wildland fire occurs, but with some aspects not normally addressed for a typical home fire. Examples: multiple driving escape routes; shutting off gas, electricity and water; and having emergency contact information with someone outside the wildfire area for people who get separated. When a large WUI fire strikes, the plan must be a little more complex than meeting at the mailbox and calling 911 from a neighbor’s home.
The final stage, “Go,” refers to when to evacuate, where to evacuate to and what do if you’re trapped in your home.
More Than a Brochure
What I really like about the OCFA program: It doesn’t stop with a brochure. On the OCFA Web site, you can watch supplemental videos—an inexpensive way to make educational materials available for those who need them. OCFA’s site also has information to help homeowners select contractors to help them get their homes ready, and a sign-up process for home wildfire safety inspections.
As for whether the public is motivated to obtain and access these materials, I expect that’s not a problem. Wildfires happen enough in Southern California to capture the attention of most people.
In all, “Ready, Set, Go” is a multifaceted prevention (mitigation) program that has a good local slant and identity, even if many of the topics covered are similar to other urban/wildfire hazard mitigation efforts.
Pass It On
We all know that if there’s enough wind and an “ember blizzard” moves far out in front of a wildfire, stacking hot coals up in front of combustible surfaces, then all the defensible space in our grasp won’t help—although “hardened” home construction might. But until we’re building homes out of concrete (which is actually being considered), then we’re going to have some risk.
As we all watch the wildfire season unfold, we can be thinking ahead to our own efforts at mitigating it. If you’re like me, in an area like the Pacific Northwest, you don’t face the same risk as Southern California—but that doesn’t mean the risk doesn’t exist.
I like to steal good ideas (and even programs) where I can from the people who deal with particular hazards regularly, especially since we don’t have the resources to invent them from the ground up each time we run into a new problem.
Jim Crawford is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Vancouver (Wash.) Fire Department and is chair of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals. He has written “Fire Prevention: A Comprehensive Approach,” published by Brady, and has also written a chapter on fire prevention in “Managing Fire and Rescue Services,” published by the International City/County Managers Association. Crawford is a past president of the International Fire Marshals Association and has served on the NFPA’s Standards Council. He is a member of the IAFC.
For more information on the Orange Country Fire Authority, visit www.ocfa.org
. Reach Laura Blaul at firstname.lastname@example.org