HomeCommunity NewsTo Combat Fire Season, Preparation Is Critical

To Combat Fire Season, Preparation Is Critical

It’s been 14 years since the Station Fire hit La Cañada Flintridge in 2009 — an event that spanned 51 days and took the lives of two firefighters. The fire pressured the community through hardships and scary times, and it is still considered the largest documented fire in Los Angeles County since 1800 after it burned through 160,577 acres.
Firefighter Cesar Lerma from Los Angeles County Fire Station 82 in LCF said fire season is typically between August and October, but in California, “every month is fire season.”
“California is always kind of dry, so we’re always having that potential for wildfires,” said Lerma.
La Cañada Flintridge is especially vulnerable when it comes to wildfires since it is surrounded by mountains. The region has become more vulnerable recently as many home insurance companies have stopped providing coverage to new customers and even some existing ones.
State Farm was among the group of insurance companies that stopped issuing policies starting in May, along with Allstate and Farmers.
“State Farm’s provider of homeowners insurance in California will cease accepting new applications including all business and personal lines property and casualty insurance, effective May 27, 2023,” read the official statement from State Farm.
According to Cal Fire, as of Sept.11, there have been 5,280 wildland fires and 3,169 structure fires across the state in 2023.
There were 5,661 wildland fires in 2022. The August Complex Fire in 2020 is the largest wildfire in the last three years, charring 1,032,648 acres and reaching seven counties.
Wildfires are typically started in LCF when lightning strikes down power lines or when a vehicle breaks down on the side of the road and catches fire, which then spreads to nearby hills.
Laura Olhasso, mayor for LCF during the 2009 Station Fire, remembers clouds of smoke, about 58 fire trucks from different cities and counties lined up on the street, and sleeping in city hall on the floor during the days it lasted.
“The Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department worked hand in hand, and they certainly had emergency plans in place,” Olhasso told the Outlook Valley Sun.
Although Olhasso didn’t know exactly what to do in her position as mayor, she knew to, “stay out of the way of the experts,” and “man all the communications in the city.”
As someone who is now a 42-year resident, Olhasso has had to pack up her family for fires three times in her time in LCF, but she is glad that yearly brush clearance is required and inspections are in place to ensure the safety of residents.
“We got a letter from the fire department [this year] saying that our property was OK, [and] that was comforting,” said Olhasso.
The fire station has seen residents being more proactive in the efforts to make their homes safe. Lerma and other firefighters see the improvement through their yearly brush inspections.
“I feel like, overall, they’re doing a pretty good job,” said Lerma. “During our inspections, there are a lot of people that pass. So, they’re doing well maintaining that brush, making sure it’s alive and making sure they have a good clearance between their home and the brush.”
L.A. County Fire Chief Pat Sprengel agreed and said that brush inspections are crucial to make sure residents are ready because “it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when’ the fires are coming,” he said. “If you live in La Cañada, at some point, you will be in that position where you’re going to have to leave your house or be ready to leave your house.”
Lerma said that most of the residents know what they are doing, especially those who live close to the hillsides.
“It’s always best to prepare yourself, especially as a resident because there’s so many homes, and we’re always going to prioritize what’s closest,” said Lerma. “So, the better they are prepared, the better it helps us in order to help them out and protect their homes.”
The station suggests that residents read the “Ready! Set! Go!” plan from the L.A. County Fire Department, which was implemented in 2011.
Lerma pointed out some big takeaways from the plan:

  1. Maintain your house on the outside. This includes making sure your roof is clear, you don’t have trees hanging over the top of your home, and making sure you have a good distance between your home and any type of large brush, “especially if you live on the hillside.” Lerma said that maintaining brush on your property consistently can help to make sure you don’t have dead brush surrounding your residence.
    “You just want to have defensible space,” said Lerma.
    Defensible space is the buffer homeowners are required to create between their structure and the landscape. This space slows the spread of wildfire and improves the safety of firefighters defending your home.
    The plan also encourages people to plant fire-resistant and native California plants, but that can be tough since there is not a definitive list of them.
    “Although some plants are marketed as fireproof or fire resistant, any plant will burn under the right conditions, but some plants are harder to ignite than others,” Cherilyn Burton, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, told the Outlook Valley Sun.
    She added that evergreen plants that hold moisture, such as succulents, are typically harder to ignite than plants that are resinous, have volatile oils, or that accumulate dead wood or plant matter.
    “There are several important considerations when planting a fire-resistant garden, such as the density and arrangement of the plants and the structure of the vegetation,” said Burton. “For example, creation of fuel ladders and planting a high density of dry plants adjacent to homes or buildings should be avoided.”
    Burton suggests using Calscape, a website where you can enter a California address, zip code or location and will show a list of native plants in your area.
  2. Have a plan. A plan can entail what you will do if a wildfire hits and what belongings you will need to gather quickly before leaving the property.
    The plan from the department includes a checklist to help people create a plan, like writing down emergency contacts, school names, where you will go if wildfire hits close to home, and what to take with you.
    To quickly remember what to take, the department tells people to remember the six P’s.
  • People and pets
  • Prescriptions, vitamins and eyeglasses
  • Plastic: credit cards and cash
  • Personal computer
  • Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
  • Papers, phone numbers and important documents.
    “Preparation is always good,” said Sprengel. “Some of us live within the interior of the city, and we don’t think that it affects us, but if we get that wind-driven fire where we have embers flying through, the potential is there for all residents within La Cañada.”
    Sprengel highly suggests residents to go over the “Ready! Set! Go!” plan from the department and comply with brush inspections to safety secure their homes.
    The station is always preparing for the next wildfire.
    “The fire service is a growing thing,” said Lerma. “So, we’re always trying to find the newest thing, the best thing in order to handle either a structure fire or wildfire. So, we’re always learning every day, just getting ready to prepare for the next fire.”
    Olhasso also has a few tips in her pocket after going through the station fire.
    “The other thing that we need to emphasize is that when the fire department or the sheriff’s department [during evacuation] tell you to go, go,” she said. “By not [evacuating], [you are not] only putting yourself at risk, but you’re putting the firefighters at risk, because now they have to go rescue you.”
    She also highly encourages families to have a plan, especially during the week, when no one is home.
    Similar to the station, the city of LCF has efforts and partnerships in place to keep the community safe.
    Emergency coordinator Jared Hartel told the Outlook Valley Sun that the city partners with the American Red Cross and Southern California Edison to ensure the well-being of affected citizens by replacing power lines with fire-resistant sleeves.
    The city also uses their emergency alert system, AlertLCF, to notify residents about imminent threats to life and property in specific impacted areas.
    “Decisions about evacuations are made collaboratively by L.A. County Sheriff, L.A. County Fire and our city,” said Hartel.
    The Los Angeles County Fire Department holds a key role in the emergency efforts, especially in the case of a wildfire.
    “Our local fire department is among the largest in the Western Hemisphere,” said Hartel. “When a fire alarm sounds, the response is huge. Multiple agencies, including Burbank Fire, Glendale, Pasadena, L.A. City, U.S. Forest Service and possibly Cal Fire, provide a combined defense in the event of a wildfire in our area.”
    Sprengel is grateful for the city for being a great partner and assuring that the community is prepared for the fire season.
    “I just appreciate the preparation that the city has done, the communication that the city has done to make sure that the residents are prepared, and I feel that we are prepared in the city of La Cañada,” said Sprengel.
    The city is also looking to expand their information to residents through various events like “Know Your Zone,” an upcoming educational campaign teaching residents about evacuations zones and procedures.
    “Moreover, we’re updating our Local Hazard Mitigation Plan in coordination with [the state] and FEMA to ensure we’re continually improving our preparedness strategies,” Hartel said.
    But, overall, Hartel thinks LCF residents are prepared when it comes to a wildfire.
    “LCF residents show a commendable commitment to emergency preparedness,” he said. “Many adhere to fire codes by maintaining their property.”
    Hartel encourages residents to register for AlertLCF, engage with firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, familiarize themselves with the city’s preparedness guidelines and make a personal plan, to name a few.
    To view the “Ready! Set! Go!” plan from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, visit fire.lacounty.gov/rsg/.
    To explore native plants in different areas of California, visit calscape.org.
    To learn more about the city’s emergency preparedness tips, visit cityoflcf.org/emergency-prep/.

    First published in the September 14 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.


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