In Our Backyard No. 4 (bonus): Are you ready for the next wildfire? Get set for the hottest tips on preparedness when it’s time to go

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This is a special fourth bonus episode to In Our Backyard E4: Fire is part of California’s natural landscape. We’ll always be waiting for the next, inevitable smoke out.

California wildfires are dangerous, but they don’t have to be deadly. Don Butz, Lakeside Fire chief and  San Diego Fire Safe Council president, says we can protect ourselves by following simple steps from American Red Cross’ Ready, Set, Go plan. We cover everything from managing gardens to assembling supply kits. 

Read the full episode transcript below:

WARREN: Okay. So, you live in Southern California and that means you know all about the dangers of wildfire. Welcome to that club. But, what can you do now? 

Don: Hello, I'm Don Butz, the fire chief for Lakeside Fire Protection District, as well as the President for the San Diego County Fire Safe Council. 

WARREN: Before we get to what you can actually do -- what is a fire safe council?

Don: The one I belong to is a county-wide organization made up of community members and fire professionals that focus on first-line of defense from wildfires. Education’s a key point and sharing with them the importance of preparing your home, preparing yourselves, and preparing your family, these fires in California in particular, but we've seen throughout the country, there's not enough firefighters and fire resources out there to protect every single house when one of these happen. You add to that some very dangerous fire weather and everybody needs to take care of their own safety. And that means getting involved with the fire safe council and following programs such as Ready, Set, Go. 

WARREN: What's that? 

Don: There's three steps getting ready, get set and then go when you need to leave.

WARREN: That sounds simple enough, but get ready to go because Don has a lot to offer.

Don: Getting ready has a couple of phases. The first phase is defensible space, creating a defensible space around your home. What we're looking for there is one hundred feet of clearance. There's a Zone One which is 30 feet from your house, which we're removing all combustibles and limiting the combustible vegetation. 

WARREN: Now that includes a lot of things. There’s or mulch around the house and any vegetation that’s lower than your knee. It also includes wooden fencing and decks and bird nests that hang out under the eves, patio furniture, big trees next to windows, and, of course, firewood. Basically, if you think it can burn, it needs to be replaced with a non-combustible option or just removed. Here’s why with an example.

Don: If you have wood fencing, think about changing out that wood fencing, particularly anywhere where you're within five to 10 feet of the structure. Because we've seen that a fence on an acre piece of property will catch fire a hundred feet from the house, but that fence will burn right up to and through and up to the house. And then that's how that fire actually penetrated the house was there was direct flame because of the wood fence. 

WARREN: Okay, you have that nice 30-foot fire-proof perimeter around your house, what’s next?

Don: The first thirty is cleared, very well-groomed. The next 70 out to that 100 foot mark is where we're thinning native vegetation and removing large concentrations of native vegetation, which are highly flammable. And that's to protect your house. The second part to that is also the hardening of your home.

WARREN: Now, hardening of your home basically means your home is prepared for wildfire and an ember storm. It does not mean fireproof. Home hardening addresses the most vulnerable components of your house with building materials and installation techniques that increase resistance to heat and flames and embers that come with most wildfires.

Don: Some things you can do to harden your home is if you've got an existing home, retrofit ember resistant vents. The gable ends, the ends of the house. When you look up at the attic area there, it's vented because your house has to breathe to be healthy. We don't want to trap moisture. Trapping moisture creates mold, the mildew and all sorts of other issues. But by trying to keep the house healthy and not have that mold, we have to have airflow. That airflow also allows for embers to enter or penetrate the house. So we're talking about removing those vents and replacing them with an ember resistant vent, which basically creates a baffling system, so those embers don't go all the way through. 

Warren: What is the baffling system? What's it made of? Is it a screen? 

Don: Actually, we have found that the screens don't work. They've done laboratory tests where if an ember hits that screen with a Santa Ana wind or just a good, strong wind, what ends up happening is that an ember continues to burn until it gets to a size small enough then to pass through that screen. So this baffling system creates a series of right hand turns or 90 degree turns. So as it moves through the system and eventually gets caught in a pocket where the wind speed isn't able to push it through.

WARREN: Now, besides the baffling system, here are some other ways to harden your home.

Don: You replace your windows with double-paned windows that are metal clad or have a metal frame. We found that the vinyl windows that are double paned, if there's no metal frame to it, the heat will loosen or weaken the, the vinyl and the window panes will actually fall out. So that's why we suggest double-paned windows, your garage doors and any of the doors around the house. Make sure your weather seal is still intact. Easiest way to tell that is if you can see the light underneath the door, around the edges, then the weather seems gone and that's how embers can gain intrusion into the house, as well. 

WARREN: So you want to stop the flames from getting close to your home and you certainly want to keep them from coming in. And, remember, your home is made of wood. It will burn if it’s given the chance. Now that you’ve prepared your living space, the next step: get set. 

Don: We want to create a wildfire action plan. So similar to when we were all young and going to school, we talked about doing fire drills and then we did exit drills in the home. So we teach kids that when a smoke detector goes off, go -- there should be two ways out of every single room in the house, the door you came in, maybe a window. So using that same approach, we need to develop an action plan, so if there's a wildfire, what are we going to do? So in advance, put together such things as what's the meeting location going to be for your family? If you have to get evacuated and somebody is away, where do you meet? What's the spot you're going to meet at? And I encourage you not to make it down the street, but pick an area outside, maybe the next town over, you know, the Wal-Mart parking lot in the town just east of you. That might be the place to go to, for example. That evacuation plan should also make provisions for your pets and large animals. We see this all the time that people trying to walk their horses out. If you live in a fire-prone area, I highly encourage you to trailer train your large animals so they know how to get into a trailer. They're comfortable with it. You can't take any horse and walk it in and put it and load it in the back of a trailer. So, again, I want to advocate: train those animals that you're going to transport, even your household pets. Do you have a crate to put your dog in? You don't want your three cats in the car with you trying to evacuate, running around the car. So, you know, are they crate-trained to and do we have a place to take care of them once we get to where we're going? Do you have the food they need? Are there any medications? Just like for yourself.

WARREN: That brings us to a supply list.

Don: Red Cross has got the greatest list out there for supplies. A little point here is if you're on prescription medication, try to have a ready, set, go bag either in your trunk of your car or somewhere in the garage where you know you can grab it and go. The other thing I encourage people to do is all your important documents, scan them and upload them to the cloud. 

WARREN: Okay, that’s birth certificates, marriage licenses, professional licenses, passports, church records, property deeds, loan documents, lease agreements, financial information. And, don’t forget.

Don: Your insurance documents. And also, visit your insurance policy, make sure you understand what you're truly being covered for or what you're not being covered for. I'm in the business and thank goodness, knock on wood. I haven't suffered a fire, but I know other firefighters who did. And there were, like, shocked that they were underinsured or didn't understand their insurance policy and what it covered. So go through that document.

WARREN: Okay. Once all the paperwork is organized and safe, put a list together of all the important things you need to remember to take with you, so you’re not scrambling around during an evacuation. 

Don: In our family, we have a list by room that says these are the things that are going to go, and my wife had to actually utilize that list when I was away on a fire. She was going to be evacuated, so my daughter and her just sat and pulled out the list. OK, out of the bedroom comes these three items out of this, and they had a car loaded in 15 minutes ready to go as opposed to trying to stop and think about where the stuff's at. 

WARREN: And, if all of this is getting a little too much to remember. Don has an easy memory trick.

Don: Remember the six P's. It's people and pets. It's your papers, phone numbers and important documents. It's prescriptions, vitamins and eyeglasses. Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia. Personal computer, hard drives and disks. And then plastics. Your credit cards and any cash that you may have on hand. Those six PS, when you're ready to go, that should be identified on your list that you have for your house, so you know what to hit and what to pick up and move. 

Warren: What about knowing the neighborhood and talking to your neighbors about the concerns that they may have? Maybe there's somebody down the street who has a disabled person on the second floor, for example, and maybe they're going to be away at a crucial moment, that sort of thing. To what extent do you advocate neighborhood organizations? 

Don: Well, I belong to the San Diego County Fire Safe Council, which is a county wide, but the local Fire Safety Councils, the Neighborhood Fire Safe Councils. That's where that work gets it done. I think the strongest front-line defense for us is our neighborhood watch-type programs, which is what I think fire safe councils are. They’re the fire services version of Neighborhood Watch. And going back to your question. Yes, sharing that, “hey, I'm going to be out of town. My dad's at home. Would you mind keeping an eye on him?” The neighbor-to-neighbor approach is always the best because as first responders, we get there, you're going to know, “hey, I know that Don's not home, but his father's there and his father may need some help. So I’m going to go down and check on him. Or maybe we can move him to one of his son’s or his daughter’s house for a while until this thing blows over. That's a type of proactive work that needs to be done. And I know it's like a lot, but. We live in an environment that is a fire-prone environment anyhow, and then climate change is simply accelerating that impact and magnifying that impact.

Warren: OK, so the fire has come and you gotta go. 

Don: Well, that brings a good point. Don't wait for that fire to come. If you think you need extra time, if you're uncomfortable, if you definitely live in a community that has only one way in and one way out, or in normal conditions, it's congested for traffic. I highly encourage you to self-evacuate long before the fire department and law enforcement give you that order. Think about relocating out of the area. And if we have people who are medically fragile. If we have people that have mobility needs that need a little extra time. Don't wait for us to say go if you see smoke on the horizon. Get your stuff packed and loaded and then go get lunch someplace, go out to dinner down out of the neighborhood and let some time go by. 

WARREN: Alright, what are some other hot tips?

Don: Make sure your car's backed in, so you're not backing out into traffic. You're pulling into traffic. That's always a safer bet. You also want to leave the lights on in your home that helps us find your house in the dark. And, that patio light in the back. Leave that on for us because if we're out there at night and the power's still on, it just helps us with the visibility. I've known quite a few firefighters, including myself, that we ran around the back of this house with the fire getting ready to bump it, and either almost fell in the pool or fell in the pool because it was dark and smoky conditions and a little bit of extra light might help. So definitely give us that light outside. And then shut off the air conditioning. Any heavy drapes that you have, that nice lacy curtain, pull them out of the way or take them down if you can. Shut all your windows and doors. Ready, set, go talks about leaving them unlocked. But I would say lock them if we need to get in, we're firefighters, we have the ability, we have the training to force entry if we need to. Just lock it. It's just as easy and there's a peace of mind. 

WARREN: And, finally, something you might not have thought of.

Don: If there's a garden hose, leave it out or we can see it. Don't turn it on. Just leave it set, ready to go. There's many times as the engineer when I was an engineer where I would back the fire truck to your house, the captain, the firefighter put the hoses, I grabbed that garden hose and put it into my tank. And if I was there for ten minutes, I probably got 30 to 40 gallons while I was waiting there. So that's 30 to 40 gallons I don't have to stop at a hydrant and take out all the hose. So those garden hoses are highly effective. And then use your checklist, make sure your supplies are with you and then get on the road. If you're in an area where you think you're going to encounter some of the heat. Long sleeve shirt, long sleeve pants, close toed shoes, sneakers, something like that has some mobility, might want to think about a bandana to cover your face, and some goggles. Some safety goggles to protect your eyes from the embers. If you're in there, I encourage you to get out of the area before you get subject to that. But if you get trapped on a road, you might have to leave your vehicle or you might have to drive through the stuff. If you're driving through the stuff, the smoke and everything and the embers, if your car has the ability to do a recirc, circulate on that, turn that on. Because what that does is it stops bringing outside air into your vehicle. So turn the recirc on. If it doesn't have that option, turn it off. And I know it’s going to get warm, but it'll be you'll breathe fresher air in that cab for that short time until you get through the smoke. 

WARREN: What do you say to people who live in areas which haven't experienced fires before, who really believe that they're not going to be subject to them? 

Don: This is applicable not just to wildland fire. I mean, we're focusing on this. But you're ready, set. Other than what's the trigger at the go point, could be a chemical release. It could be a large structure fire. It could be a water break, a flood, a tsunami. There's all sorts of other conditions that this disaster preparedness approach can address. A simple thing. You know. We had an active shooter in Southern California just recently. You might have to relocate because law enforcement's knocking on your door and saying, “you know, we need to move you out of here because there's a crime of violence occurring.” So these steps are applicable to any disaster. And, for those that live on the coast or in the city and feel that they don't live in the backcountry. The Normal Heights fire in San Diego, I know that was a while ago, but that was literally three miles, four miles from the beach. The Poinsettia Fire was actually burned to within a mile and a half of the beach in the city of Carlsbad a couple of years back. So anywhere in Southern California, I think the Ready, Set, Go program should be a minimum for individual preparedness and responsibility. 

WARREN: So, once again, remember the three steps. Get ready by making sure all the flammable material is cleared around your home, and harden your home so embers don’t get in. Get set by making plans with your family, your neighbors, your roommates. Make a supply list and scan those documents to the cloud. And, finally, go! Don’t wait, evacuate. These steps help you and firefighters like Don ensure the next fire season isn’t worse than it needs to be.



Warren Olney


Julie Carli