A panel of experts answer questions on fire safety during a Town Hall meeting June 27 organized by Mountain Meadows Community Watch. Photo by Susan Cort Johnson

Town Hall focuses on the hazards, prevention

Wildfire risk and prevention was the topic of discussion during a Town Hall meeting organized by Mountain Meadows Community Watch Thursday evening, June 27.

Forest Duerksen, the fire chief for the Westwood Fire Department, said he had fire safety on his mind and was glad to start the process.

He named the top causes of fire in Westwood. In winter it is the improper disposal of ash from woodstoves and fireplaces. Also combustible materials left near heat lamps for chickens cause fires. He urged homeowners to get rid of wood shake shingles, which are a fire hazard and advised a new roof rather than covering the shingles with tin.

Clearing property of dry pine needles and other green waste that can catch fire by floating embers from wildfires is important, said John Hunter, the fire chief for Clear Creek Community Services District. Clear Creek is a Firewise Community.

Electrical powerlines have been the cause of many fires in recent years. Michael Keefe, a senior public safety specialist, for Pacific Gas and Electric Company, said PG&E was cutting power to customers as a last line of defense against fire on windy days. However, in rural areas home generators are frequently used and can cause fires if people do not operate them properly. He said all generators must have a transfer switch.

Many wildfires are caused by human error, said Pat Holley, assistant general manager for Lassen Municipal Utility District. He warned those attending the meeting of the importance of using a licensed electrician for electrical work at their home. He said the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa in 2017 was caused by a private electrical system. Work at the home had been done by an unlicensed electrician. Residents need to be aware of improper use of electricity within their neighborhood, such as extension cords running from an electric panel to an outbuilding, said Holley.

Isaac Thornton, a battalion chief for the Cal Fire Lassen Modoc Plumas Unit, said it is difficult to save property from a wind driven wildfire but lots of fires are not driven by wind so it is important to prepare for those. The best defense is to clear combustible materials away from buildings and do as much as possible to fireproof the house. For example, install concrete siding and make sure vents in the eaves are properly covered. (For information on fireproofing a home go to the National Fire Protection Association website nfpa.org.)

While property owners must prepare their homes for wildfire, timber owners also work to protect communities as well as the forests. Cade Mohler, a forester with Sierra Pacific Industry, said fuel breaks are a priority along highways and county roads as well as community boundaries. He said squatters are a risk factor and suggested people call SPI at 251-0241 or Cal Fire to report camping or illegal campfires on private lands.

All panel members emphasized the importance of being prepared to evacuate when a wildfire is approaching. People should leave quickly in order to avoid traffic jams. Duerksen said during evacuations emergency workers would be available to provide information. He is in the process of creating a map of evacuation routes out of Westwood. Hunter said the only route out of Clear Creek is Highway 147. (For information on evacuation preparedness go to readyforwildfire.org).

Both fire chiefs said they were working on a siren system to warn residents of the need to evacuate. They agreed the difficult part was identifying people with special needs requiring help if evacuation is advised. Larry Bradshaw, president of the board of directors for Mountain Meadows Community Watch, said the neighborhood watch groups might be able to create neighborhood emergency response teams to help with such issues.

Another valuable tool recommended is CodeRED Emergency Notification App for Smartphones. It sends emergency notifications to subscribers specific to their location. The Clear Creek Community Services District has a link to CodeRED on its website clearcreekcsd.specialdistrict.org.

At the beginning of the meeting, Bradshaw stated that fire safety is not the main emphasis of Mountain Meadows Community Watch but a Town Hall meeting was organized because wildfires are a real hazard and threat to communities.