A 3 a.m. evacuation signaled the beginning of a nightmare for thousands of people and animals in Northern California counties in October, as their homes and communities went up in flames. Decades of fire suppression and a trend of drought has allowed for the buildup of fuel—organic combustible material accumluated by the lack of a natural burn cycle. Fire is a part of life, but when it is held back in the belief that it cannot coexist with humanity, it can come back with a vengeance.
The 14 wildfires in Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties in the Northern California area ate through miles of developed and undeveloped areas, taking down homes, parks, public spaces, and department stores in the late hours of October 8 and early morning of October 9. Conjectures as to how the fire began point to downed PG&E power lines knocked over by unusually high winds. The wind during the time of the worst of the fires, such as with the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, measuredto be as fast as 75 mph, carried the flamesin some of the deadliest fires in California history from fuel source to fuel source.
With the devastation of the fires still in full swing, EcoNews Report host Jennifer Kalt, Director of Humboldt Baykeeper, spoke with Cybelle Immitt, planner with the Humboldt County Public Works Department, and Tracy Katelman, a forester and founder of ForEverGreen Forestry, about the absolute necessity of community preparedness for wildfire in Humboldt County.
“With the fires down south, I’m sure a lot of us have been thinking about...what would we do in the same situation? How would we be prepared?” Katelman said. The redwood curtain surrounding our county, even with its coastal fog and damp earth, does not exempt us from the dangers of wildfire. A scorch-scarred redwood snag sits in Katelman’s backyard, a testament to the past fires in the area.
Katelman and Immitt have been working with Humboldt County Fire Safe Council to update the Humboldt County Wildfire Protection Plan.
A lack of resources is a cause for concern in terms of fire preparedness in Humboldt County. Local fire chiefs have voiced concern about what would happen if a fire breaks out while fire-fighting resources are not in the area. For example, if CalFire is fighting a fire elsewhere and therefore not in the area, local volunteer fire departments are the ones who step in. Though they are well-trained, the fire departments cannot always replicate the resources CalFire have, including the ability to attack the fire by air.
“It’s not quite the same as CalFire. A lot of those air resources that put that fire [near Blue Lake] out really quickly are out of town, “ Immitt said. “So, a day later could have made a huge difference with that fire because that’s when things blew up down south and those helicopters and airplanes were then busy, a lot further away. It could have been a much more destructive fire for that neighborhood. That’s what we’re worried about. That’s what we want people to be prepared for.”
Katelman, Immitt, and the Council are discussing how to prepare local communities to coexist with fires in Humboldt County. We exist within an environment, Immitt explains, that has historically had many more burns than we have allowed in recent years. “Part of the reason we’re in this situation...is because we’ve been so great at suppressing fire for so long,” Immitt said.
Working with communities towards coexisting with fires instead of suppressing them and making sure homes and other infrastructure are prepared is a goal of the Council.
The Humboldt County Fire Safe Council was created by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors in 2002 out of the need for a plan in case of wildfire. Representatives on the council, from a variety of organizations, come together quarterly to discuss and implement the wildfire plan for Humboldt County.
This season’s devastating fires sparked the initiative for fire preparedness community workshops held by Immitt and Katelman. “I’ve been thinking this week, what would I do if I had 20 minutes’ notice to get out of my house? It’s a major reality check, I think, for all of us in terms of how prepared we are and the reality that things are changing; this could happen here,” Katelman said.
The workshops, which began on October 26 and run until December 6, and aim to teach communities how to prepare for wildfire and provide a space for concerns and ideas. Two workshops remain, following the printing of EcoNews: Monday, December 4 on the Upper Yurok Reservation, and Wednesday, December 6 in Hoopa Valley. For more information visit www.humboldtgov.org/FireSafeCouncil.
One thing that you can do right now to begin your preparedness is to sign up for the Humboldt Alert program at https://member.everbridge.net/index/453003085616405#/login. The Humboldt Alert program will notify you of any current emergencies in the area, including tsunami warnings, floods, and, of course, fires.
Please direct questions to Cybelle Immitt at: [email protected] or 707-267-9542.