How to help – or at least not hinder – firefighters as they battle wildfires and try to save homes

13 September 2020

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USA – It’s not even the height of wildfire season, but resources are spread thin as firefighters battle multiple, massive fires around California, including some in our backyards.

More than 20 million acres – a modern-day record – have burned in the state so far in 2020.

And the worst, likely, is yet to come.

While there often are summer wildfires, the state’s most destructive blazes typically occur in the fall. But the dry vegetation already prevalent in the region heightens the risk that fires will continue before then.

As firefighters gird against fatigue, they want residents to understand how to help themselves and those on the front lines.

“People can think of it as being our teammates and setting all of us up for success,” Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Greg Barta said. “They should pay attention to what they’re doing and think about how that could start a fire or how that will affect our response.”

Here’s what they want us to do.

Know your routes 

Traffic gridlock hampered evacuations during the Canyon 2 fire in 2017, said Anaheim Fire & Rescue spokesman Shane Carringer. That 9,217-acre blaze, which took nine days to contain, was the biggest fire to hit Orange County in nearly a decade and forced several thousand people to flee dozens of neighborhoods, namely in Anaheim Hills.

People trying to evacuate can make it hard for emergency vehicles trying to get in, Carringer said, especially in canyon areas and where there are narrower roads. So residents, especially those in isolated communities, should know what the best routes out of the area are.

Since the Canyon 2 fire, Anaheim authorities have created maps —available on the city’s site— outlining evacuation routes based around major streets including Weir Canyon Road, Fairmont Boulevard and Santa Ana Canyon Road.

“Those residents should be familiar with that evacuation plan so they can safely evacuate,” Carringer said. “But it’s also designed to help first responder vehicles to get up there safely.”

Get out when you’re told to

When you’re told to evacuate, do it. Take what you can’t live without such as medications, baby food, pet food and important documents. But most importantly, get out.

“We understand that folks want to stay back and want to protect their homes but it really compounds the problem for us,” said inspector Sean Ferguson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

“These fires are emitting a tremendous radiant heat and a garden hose is going to do next to nothing,” Ferguson said. “We have the training, the equipment and we’re ready to get in there.

“Let us do our job.”

Barta added that those who stay behind risk getting hurt and needing help.

“It becomes an incident within an incident,” Barta said. “We’re still battling a fire but we have to perform a rescue to provide an exit from an environment they should haven’t have been in.”

‘Harden’ your home

Everyone should know this part by now. And yet.

Fire authorities all echo that preparation is key especially when there’s already a fire burning near your area.

“Break the fuel continuity by managing the grasses, cutting back shrubs, removing dead fuels and keeping a clear perimeter around your house,” Ferguson said.

“We don’t want trees hanging over your house near your chimney … and we don’t want to see large wood piles located directly to your home.”

By doing that, you lessen the work firefighters have when they’re safeguarding homes during a blaze, Ferguson said.

“The less amount of time we have to spend on each individual home,” he said, “the more homes we can get to to protect.”

Make way for first responders

Earlier this week, Laguna Beach city officials advised residents to avoid parking on narrow streets, to make it easier for first responders to get into neighborhoods.

The city and its fire authorities have long formed plans to shield the city from brush fires, in the wake of a 1993 disaster that torched 14,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said in a meeting this week that the way people park their cars in those narrow streets could hinder fire engines from getting past. It was suggested curbs in the area be painted red to restrict parking.

“If we don’t do it immediately, we’ll have people trapped in neighborhoods,” Iseman said.

In canyon areas, roads are steep and winding, Ferguson said. So the sooner people evacuate and clear the roads of cars, the better the access for emergency vehicles.

“We’re trying to get in there quickly and it can be dangerous,” he said.

Don’t ask for trouble

Because of the El Dorado fire, authorities in Big Bear are asking people to not visit the popular mountain community. By Saturday morning, that blaze had burned more than 14,000 acres.

Big Bear is not under evacuation orders, nor is it in imminent danger, but authorities still are concerned about too many people on the routes out of the city in case of an emergency.

“Access to and from the Big Bear Valley is currently limited to (state highway) 18 only, and a lower population in the Big Bear Valley will enable a faster, more efficient evacuation if ultimately necessary, ” Big Bear city officials announced.

For those not immediately affected by fires, there are still ways to be helpful. In Orange County, the number of hikers who have needed helicopter rescues has skyrocketed.

“When a helicopter is busy doing that they can’t assist on fire responses,” Barta said. Authorities say the warm weather and recent closures of gyms have fueled the uptick in outdoor activities, but those sometimes lead to people needing medical help.

“If we can get a helicopter making drops (of water) early in a fire then we can mitigate that,” Barta said. “But all that time we’re doing medical aids is time that helicopter isn’t on a fire.”

Be mindful of your physical limitations, Barta said. Hike with partners, be hydrated and bring a cellphone.

“Set yourself up for success.”

Another way to help – don’t be a lookie-loo. In Monrovia, under an evacuation warning due to the Bobcat fire, which grew to 29,245-acres by Saturday, traffic gathered in the north end of the city with people wanting to see and photograph the blaze, police said.

“We are asking all non-residents to refrain from traveling above Foothill Blvd and impeding potential evacuation routes,” the Monrovia Police Department requested on social media.

And when it comes to gender reveal party explosions, like the one authorities say started the El Dorado fire nearly a week ago, and one that sparked an $8 million wildfire in Arizona in 2018, just don’t.

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