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January 30, 2019 – Last November’s Camp Fire seems to have scared Nevada County residents into finally acknowledging that the same thing could happen here: people (maybe your friends or relatives) dead, scores of homes burned to the ground.

Most of us probably knew this scary fact already, but humans are very good at pushing to the back of our minds that which we simply don’t want to think about.

The irony is that many of us, I believe, often think of this place as paradise. But it cuts both ways. Compare western Nevada County to the former town of Paradise: similar terrain, heavy tree cover, thick vegetation, narrow roads, and not enough evacuation routes to get everyone out in a wind-driven event.

There is no good answer to the question of whether everyone could survive a big conflagration here. It’s too dependent on variable factors that can’t be predicted: location, time of day, terrain (which includes slope), fuel (vegetation, houses or anything else combustible) and probably the biggest factor of all when it comes to evacuation and survival: the presence or lack of wind.

Wind not only moves the fire, it also fuels it. Think about your woodstove or campfire. If the fire’s slow to start or has died down to embers, what do you do? You blow on it, use bellows, pull the damper adjuster, crack the stove door or whatever, to increase the air flow until you get flame.

Santa Rosa and Paradise turned into completely unexpected catastrophes because of unusual gale-force winds. Could we get winds like that here? I don’t know, but I do know it doesn’t take a gale to turn a little fire into a big one. Anything from a breeze on up will feed the flames and move them faster than they otherwise might go.

After the Camp Fire, people here started clamoring for answers, demanding to know what the County, the fire agencies and other local entities could and would do in the event of a big fire here.

The answer is they’ll do everything they can to save as many people as they can. But the reality is, it probably won’t be enough, simply because there are too many people and not enough responders to go around. That’s where you come in.

What are you doing to get ready? Do you have a plan, and have you practiced it? Is your Go Bag ready? Is your gas tank at least ½ full at all times?

To homeowners: does your property conform to California’s requirement for defensible space? (This IS required by law, even though many owners either don’t know it or ignore it because it has not been well-enforced.) Are the access roads to your house cleared 10 feet back (minimum) from both sides, with 15 feet of overhead clearance?

Did I hear you say no? From my work with my own and other Firewise Communities, I know there are many reasons why everyone can’t meet these basic rules for fire preparedness and prevention, at least not immediately.

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Just understand there’s a price you will pay for everything you SHOULD do that you DON’T do. The less you do, the greater the chance you will pay the ultimate price. I know this sounds like a doomsday statement, but again, there won’t be enough responders to help everyone at every house or neighborhood. It’s simple math.

As Cal Fire’s Division Chief Jim Mathias put it at the County’s Town Hall last December, “You provide the defense, and we’ll provide the offense.” This means you have to do your part to make yourself and your dwelling as fire-ready as possible, AND you need to get out of there as early as possible (especially if there’s a breeze or greater), so they can do their best job putting out the fire.

Of course, our local government and related agencies do need to provide leadership, planning, education and coordinated communication, and I can tell you that this is in the works, even though you haven’t heard much about it yet.

This area’s population skews heavily toward senior citizens, which only increases the need for both personal (that means you) and government planning. Vulnerable residents with health and mobility concerns will need extra help. Your government officials know that, and they are scrambling to get prepared.

But the bottom line is still you. You are making the choice to live in what the state (and insurance companies) deem a Very High Fire Hazard area. You can’t assume you’ll be saved, and you shouldn’t wait to be saved. You are responsible for how you respond to the risk of fire. If you’re not ready, start now.

Susan Rogers is vice chair of the Nevada County Coalition of Firewise Communities.