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    Focus on Safety: East Bay Fire Risks and How to Protect Your Home

    Posted by Michelle Galvez on Aug 13, 2019 10:19:00 AM
    Michelle Galvez

    For the past two years, California has experienced its single most destructive wildfire in state history. First, with the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, which burned 38,807 acres, killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 structures at a cost of $1.3 billion. Then came last November’s Camp Fire. An astonishing 153,336 acres of Butte County burned, 86 lives were lost, and nearly 19,000 structures decimated at a cost $16.5 billion.  

    Compared to most of the Bay Area, Sonoma and Butte Counties are considered more rural, with hills of dense forest and large swaths of farm and grassland interrupted by pockets of cities, quaint towns and neighborhoods — environments that make it easy for wildfires to start and spread quickly under dry and windy conditions.  

    Conversely, Alameda County’s population is more than three-times that of Sonoma County (Contra Costa County isn’t far behind), and asphalt and cement is found more often than large open areas of grassland and trees. So, we wanted to know if disasters similar to the Tubbs and Camp Fires could happen in the East Bay and if so, what can be done to minimize devastation and protect homes and families.


    Our Unique Landscape

    fire safety landscapeAlameda and Contra Costa Counties have grown significantly over the past several years, creating a considerable amount of intermingling between wildland space and residential development — what firefighters call wildland-urban interface. Neighborhoods with a mix of narrow streets, abundant vegetation, and hard-to-reach homes can be found in cities like Berkeley, Oakland, Orinda and Lafayette. 

    Anyone who lived in the Bay Area during the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm remembers that — at 1,520 acres — it wasn’t substantially large in size, but it moved fast, engulfing homes built among a highly flammable eucalyptus forest. In the end, 25 people were killed and 3,000 homes destroyed. And it all started as a grassfire. 

    Wildland-urban interface, major fault lines, airports, refineries, hazardous materials traveling by rail and highway, construction and road work performed near gas lines, an active naval facility, a natural gas storage facility — they’re all in our backyard and all pose a risk of fire or major public emergency.

    “If everything is running like it should, residents don’t usually think or worry about the potential danger,” said Ryan Cramer, fire engineer with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “But if things go wrong, a tremendous amount of people can be affected. It’s important to be aware and minimize risk around the home as much as possible.”


    Defensible Space (and lack thereof)

    fire safety yardDefensible space as we traditionally think of it — 100 feet of clear space on all sides of the home — might not be an option for everyone. If you live in a typical suburb with track homes (especially those with zero lot lines) or a condominium building, 100 feet could take you well into your neighbor’s yard. But the same general rules apply, even for a smaller space. As best you can, follow the guidelines set for defensible space. Keep dry grass short (but don’t mow on hot, dry days), move wood and mulch piles away from the house, trim tree limbs away from the roof, and consider removing highly flammable vegetation like juniper and Italian cypress

    Also, be aware of flammable liquids that you may be storing outside or in the garage, and read their labels to ensure they’re being stored correctly. Familiarize yourself with the proper way of disposing of oily rags. Discarded rags can spontaneously combust and, if placed in a garbage can in or next to your home, the fire can quickly spread.


    Protecting your family

    fire safety home family“Smoke detectors save lives, simple as that,” said Cramer. “The key to survival is early notification.”

    Experts recommend installing smoke detectors on every level of your home, inside and outside every bedroom, and consider interconnected alarms so no matter where smoke is first detected, you’re notified as early as possible. Batteries should be changed twice a year, and alarms should be tested twice a month and replaced every 10 years.

    Having a fire extinguisher on hand is key to stopping a fire before it gets too large, but knowing how to use it correctly is even more important. Consider one for the kitchen and one in the garage. And remember that not all extinguishers can be used on all types of fires. Be sure to buy one that is properly-rated for the potential fire that might occur, or get an A:B:C multi-use extinguisher. If there is any question on whether you have the correct extinguisher, contact your local fire department. 

    Every home needs an evacuation plan and everyone inside should know exactly what to do in case of a fire. Identify escape routes and set a meeting place at a safe distance from the home. And remember that, as difficult as it may be, never go back inside a burning home once you’re out. 




    The Tubbs and Camp Fires, as well as the dozens of others that have burned throughout California in the past several years, have been absolutely devastating. We can hope that the East Bay won't experience fires as destructive as others the state has experienced, but we can also, and should, take measures to protect and prepare ourselves. 

    Topics: safety


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