For the wildland fire agencies, the month of October is statistically the deadliest month for firefighters, and now for the public as well.
Live fuel moisture in vegetation declines slowly all summer and usually bottoms in late August. After falling below 60 percent, chaparral burns as if it were dead.
Trees pick up and give up moisture in slow motion compared to chaparral. Some estimates suggest that three wet winters may be needed by large-diameter trees to take on a healthy amount of moisture after a sustained drought. As everyone knows, it’s been a long time since Southern California has seen three wet winters in a row.
In October, with the fuel moistures at a summer low, nature adds the final element — wind — that creates rapid rates of fire spread and maximum resistance to control. Santa Ana, Sundowners, Mono or Chinook, it doesn’t matter what label you assign to the wind, the effect is the same. Humidity is reduced to single digits, which means everything that can burn will burn.
Wildland firefighters are used to spot fires that start in grass, pine needles and rotten logs. But wind-driven fires can spot onto patio furniture, wood piles, cardboard boxes, cedar fencing, palm trees and, of course, wood-shake shingle roofs.
With all this in mind, it becomes easier to understand what recently happened in Northern California. Wildland fire with a high rate of spread is not unusual. However, when a wildland fire transitions through the Wildland Urban Interface and into suburban neighborhoods without slowing down, that’s a true emergency. In this scenario, firefighters must join with the Sheriff’s Department to evacuate people as fast as possible. There is no time for them to fight fire.
It also is important to remember that given these conditions, staying behind and trying to save your house with a garden hose will almost certainly get you killed. The media loves to do stories on those who defied law enforcement and saved their houses. But the media also covered 42 deaths of people in Northern California who did not have enough time to evacuate or were overtaken as they attempted to evacuate. In the presence of these conditions, in the “Ready, Set, Go!” program, when you’re told to “Go,” it’s time to go!
I have written many times that hardening of homes and constant fire abatement practices will tilt the odds in your favor during a fire. Looking at your property with a critical eye toward pine needles on the roof and on the ground should direct your efforts every week and the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council will still help out with major abatement issues.
However, during Santa Ana wind-driven fires, it is very important to have a plan (“Ready, Set, Go!”) and execute it when law enforcement or firefighters order an evacuation. The higher the wind velocity is, the harder it is for firefighters to stop a fire moving through a neighborhood. It also makes you, if you don’t evacuate, part of the problem, not the solution.
Remember, when gone, your house can be rebuilt by insurance, but your life cannot.