Last week, thick gray smoke filled the skies of Chester, the result of the horrific firestorm in progress in and around the town of Redding (population 92,000), just a two-hour drive away.
Designated the Carr Fire, the blaze is also creating health problems in much of Plumas County for those with asthma and other health related issues.
Clearly fire season is well underway, and it appears that this year might be the worst in California’s history.
According to the Cal Fire website, the largest fire burning in California has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes as nearly 4,400 firefighters and other emergency personnel from across the country battled the conflagration under sweltering conditions.
As of Friday, Aug. 3, the deadly inferno has laid waste to numerous neighborhoods decimated in the fire, with at least 160 square miles thus far consumed.
The blaze has burned more than 1,067 residences, 19 commercial structures, 481 outbuildings, charred 132,000 acres of rugged terrain (39 percent contained), and killed at least six people, including two brave firefighters working on the front lines, plus two children and their grandmother.
It was reported that one of the victims, who was not identified, did not evacuate despite receiving an evacuation warning. The sheriff’s department and the Redding police also reported several missing persons.
Included in the evacuations was a childhood friend of mine, who had just moved back to Redding a month prior to the blaze.
A phone call confirmed he was fine and has returned to his rental with his housemate, but he shared with me that the fire front had come to within a mile or two from his house before moving away from his locale.
Recently, just a few blocks from me, there was a structure fire in Westwood, the town where I live — and certainly not the first since my move there five years ago.
Two homes located next door to the fire-engulfed dwelling were also damaged. It took firefighters well into the night combating the flames before it was finally extinguished.
I admit to some trepidation, living in a wooden two-story apartment complex where some of the tenants are permitted to smoke.
The risk of fire and the current state of affairs around the state reminds me of another close call years ago, when my boyhood home in Southern California burst into flames and burnt to the ground shortly after my mother sold it, and the new owners subsequently applied a lacquer to the wood floor that ignited after fumes caught fire from the water heater’s pilot light.
The examples above demonstrate that fire may erupt unexpectedly, without warning and with deadly ferocity anytime of the day or night.
Chester and its environs have been fortunate that no wildfires have swept through the immediate area in recent memory.
Nevertheless, living and working in a rural community surrounded by forest with dry undergrowth means we’re all more susceptible to the risk from wildfire than we care to acknowledge.
But it’s not too late to take necessary precautions, including organizing an evacuation plan, so stated Chester Fire Department’s Information Office and firefighter Karen Lichti during a recent interview.
The fire around Redding is among 17 significant blazes in the state, and highlights the necessity of establishing “Firewise” communities, particularly right here in Chester. That has been the message coming from the Chester Fire Department for several months.
Lichti is urging homeowners and renters alike to recognize the importance of “hardening” their properties against the possibility of an approaching fire.
Under the Firewise program, Chester Fire is undertaking a number of significant steps with the objective of generating community awareness through its outreach efforts to the importance of protecting your property from fire — even if the property is situated within town and away from forested areas.
“A Firewise community is one that recognizes the danger of where they live and acts accordingly,” Lichti briefed me.
She called for residents to heed the advice of Chester Fire, and take decisive measures to reduce fire hazards now.
“It starts with creating a defensible space around homes in rural areas along with other measures,” she said, as a safeguard should the unthinkable happen.
Also under discussion between Lichti and myself, was the need for residents to sign-up for the CodeRED program, a service that allows for the county to contact residents directly through the Office of Emergency Services by cellphone message or text, or by sending an email to let people know whether there’s an approaching wildfire or other emergency.
Of special note, Lichti, who can be contacted at [email protected], told me that the Chester Fire Department is conducting free Home Ignition Safety inspections by identifying problems beforehand that could increase fire risk.
Inspections are carried out by knowledgeable and caring fire personnel that is not meant to be a criticism of anyone’s property and has no legal aspect; just an opportunity for the homeowner or landlord to receive constructive feedback on things they can do to make their residences safer in the case of an advancing wildfire.
Also available at the firehouse are free Firewise materials detailing ways to mitigate fire threats during the current fire season, Lichti added.
It is easy to understand where the fear of fire originates. Since ancient times, early humans have depended on fire — but have also been burnt by it.
Fire can cook our food, keep us warm and light our way — or cause large-scale destruction.
“This is a very high wildfire prone area,” cautioned Chester Fire Chief Joe Waterman. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”