SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — Fire officials are gearing up for the new fire season with heightened awareness aimed at tall grasses and undergrowth strengthened by recent heavy rains.
Officials were stunned by a rash of wild land fires in last year’s fire season that ignited around the state, including the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County on Nov. 8. It was the deadliest and most destructive wild fire in California history since 1918, and was the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018. The blaze killed at least 85 civilians. In all, 153,336 acres (close to 240 sq. miles) burned and 18,804 structures were destroyed. It racked up a tab of around $16.5 billion.
“Our focus right now is that residents should be working on their defensible space around structures on their property,” said Angela Bernheisel, Division Chief with Cal Fire in Santa Cruz County. “We had a lot of rain recently that resulted in a very abundant grass crop. This is the perfect time to get out that weed eater and to start looking at areas close to your home. Focus on piles of wood and move them away from structures. Get rid of those dead branches and begin pruning trees; this is the perfect time to get rid of ladder fuels.”
Ladder fuels, typically dead limbs and wood heaps, greatly enhance a fire’s ability to rapidly climb over them and spread into structures and beyond.
Cal Fire stresses that people should be prepared, and at the very least, have these three steps in place:
• Create a wildfire action plan that includes evacuation planning for your home, family and pets.
• Assemble an emergency supply kit for each person in your household.
• Cal Fire also suggests “hardening your home,” which means using construction materials that can help your home withstand flying embers that can find weak spots in the construction and result in your house catching fire. It takes the combination of both defensible space and the hardening of your home to give your house the best chance of surviving a wildfire, Cal Fire said.
Another huge step homeowners can make is to choose fire-resistant plants and materials and careful landscape design. This includes:
• Create fire-resistant zones with stone walls, patios, decks and roadways.
• Use rock, mulch, flowerbeds and gardens as ground cover for bare spaces and as effective firebreaks.
• There are no “fire-proof” plants. Select high-moisture plants that grow close to the ground and have a low sap or resin content.
• Choose fire-retardant plant species that resist ignition such as rockrose, ice plant and aloe.
• Select fire-resistant shrubs such as hedging roses, bush honeysuckles, currant, cotoneaster, sumac and shrub apples.
• Plant hardwood, maple, poplar and cherry trees that are less flammable than pine, fir and other conifers.
Check your local nursery, landscape contractor or county’s UC Cooperative Extension service for advice.
“That big grass crop will fuel wild land fires,” Bernheisel said. “We’re looking for 100 feet of clearance around your home. That first 30 feet of clearance around your building is the most critical. Reduce vegetation and keep your landscaping irrigated.”
Bernheisel added that Cal Fire is just now completing its first big round of seasonal firefighter training this week.
“We’ll be staffing up in stages throughout next month or so,” she said.
Recently Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Cal Fire to come up with a list of “urgent fire safety projects” that amounts, so far, to 35 major projects, including tree trimming, around the state.
Bernheisel said a great way to gather useful information is to visit www.readyforwildfire.org.