Chief concerns: What Does Fire & Life Safety Look Like to You?

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By John R. Hawkins

Fire Chief

Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department

Before I offer some ideas on fire and life safety, please understand that I am honored for the Idyllwild Town Crier to invite me to share important emergency information with you. Simply, I thank you for reading my thoughts.

So, what does fire and life safety look like to you? For your family? For your community? For your fellow workers? Have you ever thought beyond the personally life threatening obvious and really examine how you view your life? And how fire might  change it?

None of us like to just think about bad thoughts. But, we must recognize hazards to avoid risks.

Life can be very fragile when exposed to life threatening hazards particularly fires. Annually, fire kills about 2,600 American residents. Before the release of a wonderful book, “America Burning,” during the early 1970s, fire took the lives annually of 12,000 citizens.

The dramatic reduction in life loss is due to the recommendation in “America Burning” to increase the use of smoke detectors and automatic fire sprinklers. Working smoke detectors save lives. Working automatic fire sprinklers extinguish or hold in check about 95 percent of fires.

Did you know these fire statistics? Knowing the hazards allows you to mitigate the risks of fire.

Fire and life safety hazards confront us in many ways. The hazard might be in or around our residence, might be a neighborhood hazard, might be a community hazard, etc.

If fire is accidently or negligently introduced to the hazard, the risk becomes one to life and property. The risk is what gets our attention but not often seriously enough for us to do something to abate the hazard or minimize the fire risk.

The National Fire Protection Association provides statistics on what hazards exist in and around residences. Unless otherwise specified, home fires are limited to fires in or on structures. All home structure fires and home fire deaths are shown in the top two rows for context. The period of time studied was 2007-2011.

Fire cause                                                        % of all fire causes

Home cooking fires 30.8

Home grill fires ,including outside fires 1.7

Home heating fires 11.9

Home structure smoking materials 3.5

Home electrical distribution & lighting 4.4

Home child playing with fire 1.4

Outside child play 7.4

Lightning 4.4

Home candle fires 2.1

Brush, grass or forest 26.6

Home intentional fires 5.7

The NFPA table clearly shows where fires happen in and around structures. Let us first examine fires in structures.

The number one cause of home fires is cooking fires at 30.8 percent. The second-greatest fire cause is from heating fires.

With this enlightening information, we should be able to identify the hazards, such as combustible materials too close to cooking fires or defective heating components. Often when cooking, we don’t pay close enough attention to a deep fat boiler which leads to a fire originating from the boiler and extending to the kitchen area.

A defective, leaking chimney can allow hot embers to escape the chimney and extend to the attic.

Everyone on the mountain is appropriately concerned about outdoor or wildland fires. The NFPA table shows that 26.6 percent of all such fires burn natural fuels.

While there are many causes,the threat can be mitigated by doing your hazard reduction — defensible space clearance around all structures for 100 feet or to the property line, whichever is nearer (Public Resources Code §4291). That will reduce the hazard.

Then, if you are careful how you dispose of hot ashes, don’t negligently burn trash, etc., you will reduce or eliminate the fire risk.

Firefighters need you to fulfill your role to clear hazardous fuels from around all structures you control. We have a much better chance of saving your place when you do your required clearance. Unfortunately, not everyone values clearance around their structure. Still, we will inspect and help you be more safe.

I hope this article helps you better visualize what is a fire hazard, what is a fire risk and how can you mitigate both hazards and risks to live a safe life and enjoy a high quality of life. We want to help you be safe but ask that you lead your own path to safety for family and yourselves.

Thank you very much. As I frequently tell our firefighters, please take care, be safe, have fun and live the dream.

John Hawkins is the fire chief for the Cal Fire Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department. He is entering his 54th year with Cal Fire and has served as the fire chief for going on 11 years. Chief Hawkins values leadership, fire and life safety and community involvement. He has been involved with the Riverside County Mountain Area Fire Safety Task Force since 2004.

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