Sunday, June 22, 2008

Don't Ask...

More fires. Yes, more fires.

When I started this blog it was to keep my thoughts about a single fire - the Summit fire - available to those interested in reading them. I hoped, though, that that blogging about fires wouldn't become a regular event.

Well, it has become a regular event, and we're only two days into the Summer.

Friday saw the appearance of the Trabing fire along highway 1 near Watsonville. My department wasn't dispatched to that fire, though we thought it might happen at one point when they asked for additional water tenders. Once again, however, everything else in the county and all kinds of mutual aid was sent to that fire leaving our department as the only emergency coverage in our area.

But it gets better. Because the Trabing fire pulled in so many resources, the county needed additional engines to cover in other places, and my department got tapped to provide one. I volunteered for a shift of unknown duration to cover a station in the deep south of Santa Cruz county - at Pajaro Dunes. Along with two other firefighters we packed up and headed down there. When we arrived we learned that the engine normally stationed there had been out of service due to a tire problem, but that it was being fixed and would be back in service - literally in just a few minutes.

That being the case we were then sent to cover a station in the far north of Santa Cruz county - Big Creek station, about ten miles north of Davenport. We spent the night there, and were relieved at about 9am on Saturday morning by an engine and crew normally stationed there. At that point our dispatchers had managed to gather up some additional engines via mutual aid and could let us go back home.

In our case that meant back to our station for training, where we did wildland hose lay practice in the scorching sun. Then, as we cleaned up, we watched some unusual clouds roll in and bring with them something we hate in the area: lightning. I'd seen this mentioned in various weather forecasts, but nothing made it's appearance until probably 1pm or so.

For a few hours the central CA coast was peppered with lightning strikes, some of which started fires. I helped staff our station all the rest of the day with the exception of a brief stint - of less than an hour - during which I raced home and tried to take care of some long delayed chores. It was during that interval that the department was paged out for three different, lightning related, fires: one way out on Loma Chiquita, another near our station, and a third near the Summit fire border. The first two weren't found, but the third was, and as of this (Sunday) morning we still have equipment working there.

Based purely on what I read in the news media, the rest of the lightning sparked fires in Santa Cruz county are out now, though a couple burn nearby in Santa Clara county, and I've read that over 400 fires were started in the state as a result of that set of storm cells.

Changing topics - if only slightly - it's time for all of us to consider our fire safety in various ways. For example, parts of Santa Cruz county still allow the sales of fireworks. In this tinder dry year that is a very stupid thing to do. Personally, I'd like to see a state law passed prohibiting firework sales, but starting locally seems fine. Anyone interested in helping and who lives in Santa Cruz county can contact your county supervisor and ask for such a law. To make that easier, here's a link to the board of supervisors website. Just figure out who your supervisor is and call, write, or email them asking for a permanent ban on the sales of all fireworks in the county.

Another thing to consider is our own behaviors. Do you park a hot car over grass when you come home from work? That's a big risk right there. Years ago I saw an old VW minibus whose muffler actually glowed orange as it drove along Summit road. It turned off on some side street and ever since I've regretted I didn't flag down the driver and point out the problem. But it doesn't take something that obviously broken with your car to start a fire. If you tow a trailer and the safety chains drag on the ground they can throw sparks, and a normally functioning catalytic converter or muffler might ignite dry grass it comes in contact with when you park.

Another pet peeve of mine is cigarette butts tossed out car windows. I can't count the number of times I see them on the road as I walk my dogs, and I don't live on a busy street. A cigarette thrown out a window could easily kill people by starting a raging wildfire. If you do this, or know of someone who does - perhaps a child, other relative, or even someone you hire to work on your home - please ask them to stop it. You may be uncomfortable asking, but in doing so you're showing that you care about where you live. You don't have to be confrontational, but make it clear that the risk of fire is very significant and that it matters to you. The Summit, Martin, and Trabing fires should be more than enough supporting evidence.

Lastly I'll mention the thing that is probably least popular. Remember that this opinion - like everything else I write in this blog - is purely my own. I speak for no one else.

It is long past time to ban backyard burning in all of Santa Cruz county. While it is true that most people burn their tree trimmings safely, a few always screw it up and the results are dramatic for everyone. Houses and possessions are lost, people are injured or killed, and the cost of fire suppression goes up for all of us. We all pay for those escaped burns in various ways.

Thus I believe it is in the public's self interest to end the backyard burn season and replace it with other programs that help residents mitigate their fire hazards. Chipping programs, perhaps, or allow brush and tree trimmings into the local recycling centers free instead of for a fee. Whatever is changed, the most important point is that the backyard burning of brush & tree trimmings needs to end. The risks have simply become too high. If you agree, talking with your county supervisor is probably the place to start.

I must point out that I don't usually favor government regulation of individual behavior. But I do recognize there are times when the costs associated with some particular behavior are too high, even if only a few individuals cause the problems, and even those problems are only accidental in nature, rather than deliberate. In my opinion the risks associated with backyard burns are too high now, and thus they need to be stopped.

If you can suggest other behaviors, actions, or activities that might cause wildfires, please let me know with a comment here. The more we talk about these things the more likely we all are to avoid them.

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