The Santa Ana winds and low humidity levels this week led to the National Weather Service warning of “elevated” to “critical” fire danger throughout the county.
But if locals are thinking they should thin brush near their homes as a way to protect them from wildfire, especially after two fires burned dozens of acres in San Marcos during the past week, San Diego Fire-Rescue Captain Micah Doan said to wait.
Doan said when weather conditions are as dry as they have been lately, he would rather people hold off on vegetation clean-up and prepare for evacuation instead.
“Generally, the good time (to remove vegetation) is now,” Doan said. “We are certainly in fire season year-round, but with these weather conditions … we want (people) to specifically avoid yard work that can start a spark or lead to heat stroke and exhaustion.
“It is practically summer hot (now),” Doan said last Friday.
Despite it being mid-January, the Poway/Rancho Bernardo area experienced summer temperatures over the weekend.
So instead of clearing brush, pine needles and dead vegetation from yards and roofs, Doan said people should prepare their go bags so they can evacuate within a few minutes notice if necessary.
“They need 72 hours worth of stuff,” he said, adding, “This is a good time to get all documents accessible, so they can be grabbed quickly. They need important information … three days of clothing and pet food.”
Doan said go bags — minus important documents and medications — should be kept in the garage, to make loading into vehicles quick and easy. “If near their car, they can throw it in from one place, grab their documents and go.”
He said the biggest mistake people make is letting their guard down. Doan said many who lived through the 2003 Cedar fire (it burned homes in Poway) and 2007 Witch Creek fire (it destroyed hundreds of homes in Rancho Bernardo and Poway) have gotten themselves organized.
But as time passes with no major fire and residents who did not experience those devastating fires moving into the area, preparation levels tend to decline. Doan said when he speaks before community groups, many say they have not checked or updated their supplies within the last year.
They also need to plan their evacuation routes and Doan advises leaving before officials say to evacuate if they are concerned about approaching fire. Early evacuation is important to not get caught in backed-up traffic while fleeing their neighborhood, he said.
“This is why we promote early evacuation … and tell people to use some of their own intuition,” he said. If they see smoke, Doan said people need to turn on the news, be it television, radio or online. “Be situationally aware,” he said, adding smartphone apps can give details about incidents.
Doan said areas, such as the north portion of Rancho Bernardo, adjacent to open space and canyons are especially prone to wildfire. “A lot of RB has well-established, mature vegetation … close to homes. All of RB is pretty dangerous,” he said.
Many resources are online detailing how to prepare for wildfire. San Diego Fire-Rescue’s website has the “Ready, Set, Go” wildland fire action guide in English and Spanish at tinyurl.com/ready-set-go-guide. The free 12-page guide contains information on how to create defensible space, make your home fire resistant, prepare for evacuation, create a personalized fire action plan and more.
As for creating defensible space, the guide details what should or should not be within two zones. The first is up to 35-feet from structures. The second goes up to 100 feet away.
In Zone 1, the guidance is to not plant directly beneath windows or next to foundation vents, to frequently prune and maintain plants to ensure vigorous and low growth, plus remove dead branches, stems and leaves. Trees are not to have low-lying branches, near the roof or within 10 feet of a chimney. Firewood and other combustible materials are not to be stored here, gravel is to be under decks and not appropriate for storage.
In Zone 2, fuel reduction depends on the ground’s slope. Stressed, diseased, dead or dying trees and shrubs are to be removed. Large trees and shrubs that remain are to be thinned and pruned, especially along driveways to the main access road. Grass and wildflowers are to be kept under two inches in height. Leaf and needle debris is to be regularly removed from yards.
Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, which includes 4S Ranch, has added a third zone, within five feet of structures. District officials said this area should consist of hardscape only, with no plants, mulch or combustible furniture. In addition, any flammable material such as leaf litter, firewood, trash cans and anything else that can burn needs to be moved away from exterior walls, officials said.
“Mulch should not be located within five feet of a structure as it is a receptive fuel bed for fire embers and can burn with surprising intensity,” RSFFPD officials said. “Of the homes destroyed in 2007, it is estimated that 80 percent were ignited by flying embers with mulch near the base of the homes being a major contributing factor. Instead, use decorative rock, decomposed granite or concrete.”
The county’s ReadySanDiego.org website has detailed information as well. It includes suggested plants for defensible space based on climate zone, a personal disaster plan guide, instructions on how to prepare for many disasters (including wildfire, earthquake and flood), plus link to the Alert San Diego notification system. Locals are advised to register their phone numbers with the free system.
“(Wildfire) is a real, legitimate threat we see happening,” Doan said. “It is something to not let your guard down.”