OAKHURST – A Town Hall meeting in Oakhurst last Thursday was a chance for Cal Fire and Firewise Madera County to let residents know just how dire the situation is for this year’s fire season.
“I would like to say that I’m not here to scare you, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek. “I am trying to scare you.”
Those opening comments were intended to inspire people to prepare their property for another dry year in the long California drought, and a fire season to rival 2014.
“Has anybody seen the dead trees between Oakhurst and Mariposa, on Chowchilla Mountain, and the back side of Miami Mountain?” asked Cheek. “We’re looking at the exact same weather pattern as last year. Snow the end of 2013, then the beginning of 2014 it rained a little, then it stopped until almost April.”
The Chief said he had never seen the fire behavior they experienced last year, and he has been working in the area since 1988. With the dry weather throughout the winter, the spring storms only made things worse, encouraging the growth of grass which only added to the fuels.
“All the trees are dying,” said Cheek. “The brush is dying. This season will be worse than last year, unless it rains through August.”
Cheek described it as a “perfect storm,” and encouraged everyone to clear the brush around their property. Though it’s required by law that residents clear all brush 100 feet from their house, “we can’t make you cut down trees,” he said, “or trim that giant live oak right next to your house. Manzanita is one of the most flammable vegetations out there, and when pine needles have been falling into that manzanita for years, that’s a match head.”
Referencing the Courtney Fire, which destroyed 30 homes in the Bass Lake Heights in September of last year, Cheek said he looked up the fire history on that hill and the basin, and noted that there is no recorded fire history.
“That means that brush is at least 100 years old. That fire produced 50-100 foot flame lengths. We’re good at what we do, but nobody can deal with that. Mother nature will teach you who’s boss.”
If there’s a tree on your property that you can’t walk under, that tree is not safe, said Cheek, noting the importance of limbing up trees so that fuels on the ground don’t have “ladders” to climb up into the crowns. Also, if your trees are right next to each other, every one of them catches fire.
“It’s a danger to your property, your neighbor and the firefighters. We know you want privacy, but do you want privacy or do you want to come back to your home? Embers from those trees fly up and start fires on roofs and in the forest.”
Cheek said residents need to start doing this work now.
“I mean right now,” he said. “If there’s no rainfall in the next six weeks, Cal Fire is going to have to start ramping up in March. That would be the earliest in my 25 year career. Go out and trim up your trees, get the pine needles off your roof, burn your debris, talk to your neighbors and help those who need help. It’s going to be a bad fire season, and I hope I’ve scared you enough to get out there and get it done.”
Roger Maybee, coordinator for Firewise Madera County, presented residents with a wealth of resources for learning how to prepare their homes for the coming fire season, emphasizing the fact that it is up to homeowners themselves to protect their houses, their families and the possessions.
“As great as our firefighters are at putting out fires, they can’t put an engine on every home,” said Maybee. “If a home doesn’t have clearance, guess what – they’re not going to endanger their lives because somebody didn’t remove brush.”
Ninety percent of homes that burn during a wildfire are ignited by embers, said Maybee, not by direct flame impingement on the house. Therefore, “hardening” one’s home is crucial, and all the information on how to do that is available on the website firewisemaderacounty.org.
Maybee also pointed out all the dead and dying trees in the region, stressed or killed by years of drought, and described them as “Roman candles.”
“Fire creates its own weather,” he said, “It swirls, and then all these ashes fly around, coming up against your home, trying to get inside. To a fire, your home is nothing more than more fuel. Just a big pile of lumber out in the woods. Fire comes through vents, lands on roofs, in gutters filled with pines needles, in vegetation next to the house, and it’s going to burn that home down.
“The only way we can stop that is by having a coordinated effort between homeowners and neighborhoods. That what Firewise is all about.“
Roger Maybee is available for talks and workshops in communities across the county, and urges neighbors to work together to create fire safe environments. He also encourages everyone to visit the website and watch the videos.
“I can talk to you, but unless you see it for yourself, it won’t register. Anyone who lives in Bass Lake Heights knows what they’ve lost. The only way to stop this in the coming fire season is for everybody to start doing something. Take responsibility for yourselves. You have to do it.”
If anyone would like the personnel from their local Cal Fire station to come out, they would be happy to conduct inspections on your property and give recommendations on clearance.
To learn how to make your home fire safe, visit firewisemaderacounty.org.