Wildfire Resource Center Part 1: Everything you need to get ready for wildfire season

A Cal Fire crew member clears out brush, branches and other dead fuels.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

DEC. 1 — APRIL 30, “THE OFFSEASON”: This section of Lookout’s Wildfire Resource Center covers wildfire preparedness topics that are best taken care of during the cool, wet months of the year, such as clearing dead vegetation from your property, getting set up with fire insurance, and retrofitting your home with fireproof materials.

This is Part 1 of Lookout’s Wildfire Resource Center — a one-stop guide for everything you need to do to be prepared before, during and after a wildfire.

In this section, you will find resources on:

The “Offseason”

Dec. 1 - April 30

Getting your household prepared when fire risk is low is the best way to avoid getting scared when risk is high.

Having tended to more than 2,400 wildfires across California from Jan. 1 to May 18 of this year, Cal Fire officials are increasingly hesitant to call the cool winter months an “offseason.” Wildfire risk does tend to be lower when the winter rains come, however, and there are certain things you can do only during this time to prepare, such as intentionally and carefully burning dead vegetation around your property.

This is the first of a four-part Lookout series to help people protect themselves and their property the next time wildfire threatens the Santa Cruz County community. This part focuses on how you can prepare during the cool winter months. Parts 2, 3 and 4 will highlight resources during the fire season, what to do in case of fire and post-fire recovery, respectively.

Wood chipping is one of many ways to reduce dry or dead vegetation on your property.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Fireproofing your home

Research shows that when it comes to the survival or destruction of homes during wildfires, embers and small flames are often to blame. Firebrands — or smoldering leaves, wood, or other vegetation — can be carried on the wind for more than a mile, or just across your property, causing spot fires and igniting homes and other structures.

Ensuring you have defensible space — a natural/landscaped area around your home that is designed and maintained to keep fire away from structures — is one of the top recommendations from fire officials and wildfire scientists alike. All vegetation is a potential fuel source, and defensible space provides an important buffer against flying embers — and helps keep high-intensity flames away from your home’s exterior. A common misconception is that a property must be “bare” to be safe, but this is not necessarily the case. With proper landscaping, your property can still be protected.

Additionally, as many residents witnessed during the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire, fire crews do not always have the resources to save every home. In order to protect the lives of their firefighters, crews will often prioritize homes they can defend effectively and safely, which are often those with adequate defensible space. With the threat of wildfire sure to persist long into the future, residents must be willing to bear some of the responsibility of protecting their homes from potential destruction.

Another part of the process is fireproofing, or hardening, your home. This can be a difficult and sometimes costly endeavor because it requires you to imagine your home surrounded by flames — truly a scary thought — and then figure out all the ways you can keep your property from igniting. This kind of work is even more difficult during the fire season, when certain permits aren’t allowed, contractors are booked up, and tensions are high.

As was evident in the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, many homes that were built with fire-resistant materials and those that had defensible space had much higher survival rates. Doing what you can during the winter and spring months is the best option, and there are many resources to help you do it.

Roof material and defensive action can play a large role in home survival during wildfires.
Roof material and defensive action play a large role in home survival during some wildfires.
(City of Santa Cruz)

Defensible space and home hardening guides

The Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County has a plethora of brochures, guides, videos, and recommendation lists for hardening your home, creating defensible space, and firescaping (landscaping for fire prevention).

The City of Santa Cruz also has an in-depth guide on defensible space, firescaping, and roof safety, complete with FAQs, vegetation placement diagrams, and a pre-evacuation checklist.

Here’s an informational video from Pacific Gas and Electric, and here’s a quick defensible space reference guide from Cal Fire.

The Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz recently unveiled a no-cost chipping program to help residents with fuel reduction within 100 feet of their homes. Registration is required.

When choosing a contractor for roof work, fuel reduction or other home hardening projects, follow these steps from the Fire Safe Council to make sure you’re protected financially.

Visit the City of Santa Cruz fire safety page for information about permits and inspections for the following:

  • Automatic fire sprinklers
  • Fire alarms
  • Underground fire services
  • Range hood protection
  • Special events, tents, generators, fire dancing and fireworks

For smoke alarm requirements, click here.

For questions regarding permitting, inspections, phone or virtual consults, email: kkumec@cityofsantacruz.com.

If you live in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), consider getting a water storage tank, to help firefighters do their job and ensure you’ll still have access to your well in the case of a power outage. Check out this procedure and permitting outline.

Click through the slideshow below for fire-resistant plant suggestions:

Burn piles

To reduce wildfire fuel on your property, it is important to remove dead or dry vegetation during the winter and spring months. Some people gather this material and have it hauled away, or run through a wood chipper, but another option is to burn it when there is a lower risk of starting a wildfire. If burned responsibly, backyard burn piles can help keep your property safe during the dry months of the year.

The burn pile season is typically from Dec. 1 to April 30. (If you have to conduct a burn outside these months, you may get approval if a district official inspects the burn site and issues a special permit.)

During the winter season, permits are required for all burning projects, and the fee for the whole year is $55. Depending on where you live, you’ll need to obtain a permit from your local fire district or the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which has recently simplified its application process. Permits will be issued to only property owners, and backyard burning is not allowed on parcels less than half an acre, except in areas where yard waste pickup is not available. A waiver for the parcel size requirement can be obtained from the air resources district.

For the 2021 summer season, Cal Fire issued a ban on all permitted and non-permitted backyard burns as of May 1. Cal Fire officials note that mowing grass and weed wacking is encouraged throughout the year, and mornings are the best time to do so, when vegetation is cool and moist.

For more specific information on burn piles and permitting, check out these guidelines from Cal Fire and the Monterey Bay Air Resources District.

Here are some frequently asked questions about backyard burning, and here’s a step-by-step guide from the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council. There are instructions for the days leading up to a burn, as well as photographs of best practices. (Also, check out the wildfire contact list in the next section of this guide for numbers to call before you burn.)

A Cal Fire crew member works on fuel reduction in the burn scar of the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
A Cal Fire crew member works on fuel reduction in the burn scar of the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Residents can do the same on their property to lower the risk of home ignition.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Set up communication routes

Getting up-to-date alerts could save your life. Be sure to sign up for text alerts, keep a list of phone numbers (in your phone and printed in your home) and follow Twitter pages to be sure you’re in the loop about evacuation orders and fire updates.

Enroll your phone number in CodeRED, a regional reverse 911 notification system that alerts residents of evacuations, severe weather, missing persons alerts and emergency police activity.

Check out Cal Fire’s web-based Ready for Wildfire app to sign up for its alerts, view current incidents and get help building a readiness plan.

To sign up for Lookout’s free breaking news alerts, click here.

For more info on emergency contacts, click here; for up-to-date traffic and road closure info, click here; and to print Lookout’s list of emergency phone numbers, download the contact list below:

Communicating with neighbors

According to an investigation by the Arizona Republic, of the 85 people who died in the Camp Fire, 62 of them were older than 65, and 36 of them were older than 75. The elderly are especially at risk during a wildfire because many of them live alone, don’t have transportation, need extra time to evacuate, aren’t connected to alert systems, and are extra sensitive to smoke and heat.

Knock on doors, get to know your neighbors, save their phone numbers and make a plan to check in on each other when a wildfire threatens your community. A single text or phone call could save a life. During the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire, many residents in the rural community of Last Chance learned of the nearby flames from neighbors making the rounds via phone, allowing them to escape in the nick of time, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The sky glowed red above Felton during the CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020.
The sky glowed red above Felton during the CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020. At its worst, the particle pollution air quality index in Santa Cruz reached well above 400, which is designated as hazardous by the EPA.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stock up to breathe safe

Once the fires start, the necessary supplies to deal with smoky air can quickly become hard to track down. Ensure you have these clean-air essentials before you need them:

  • N95 masks: We’re all used to wearing masks now, but the surgical and cloth masks that work well to protect wearers from COVID-19 are mostly useless against smoke particles, hence the need for N95s.

Fire insurance

The best time to make sure you have fire insurance is when you’re not panicking about a nearby wildfire. Be sure your property and belongings are covered, and that’s one less thing you have to worry about when things get tense. Searching for the right insurance plan can be overwhelming, but there are resources for folks who don’t know where to look (or what to look for) or can’t afford full coverage.

It’s also important to keep in mind that certain fire preparations can improve your chances of being accepted or getting lower rates, such as installing a sprinkler system throughout the house, maintaining 100 feet of defensible space or installing a fire-resistant roof.

To start the process, you can call independent insurance agents, who represent several insurance companies, or independent brokers, who represent the insurance buyer (you). These businesses do the research to find a plan that balances your coverage needs with what you can afford.

12 ways to prepare for disaster from FEMA
(From: FEMA)

The state of California has also created the FAIR Plan Association, which is not taxpayer-funded, and helps people navigate policies, find brokers and compare pricing.

According to the California Department of Insurance, homeowners should turn to the FAIR Plan only “after a diligent search for coverage in the traditional insurance market.”

If you are rejected or dropped by your current insurance agency, you can apply for the FAIR Plan through a licensed agent or broker, or contact the FAIR Plan directly.

Whether you have insurance or not, now is a good time to take an inventory of all your property and belongings. Taking photos and keeping records of the estimated value of your stuff will help expedite the insurance claims process and expand your tax deductions, should your property get damaged by fire. Estimating the total value of your property and its contents can also help you decide on the correct amount of insurance to purchase.

For a general disaster insurance guide from FEMA, click here.

Cal Fire crew members from around the county participated in a controlled burn to reduce vegetation fuels near Ben Lomond.
On June 24, 2020, Cal Fire crew members from around the county participated in a controlled burn to reduce vegetation fuels near Ben Lomond.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Become a volunteer firefighter or fire educator

Want to help defend your community from wildfire? There are several volunteer brigades throughout the county that you can join. Click on the links or call these numbers for more information:

If you’d like to educate others about fire prevention or are interested in teaching children about fire safety, you can become a Volunteer in Fire Prevention (VIP) with Cal Fire. Call the Cal Fire San Mateo/Santa Cruz Unit to learn more.

Check out the City of Santa Cruz jobs page if you’re interested in becoming a full-time firefighter/paramedic.

If there’s anything you believe was left out of this Wildfire Resource Center, please email Lookout at news@lookoutlocal.com with your suggestions.

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