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Editorial: Plan ahead to protect yourself and your family from wildfires

Published in the July 6 – 19, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

AP Photo of California fireThe recent wildfires in Southern California and throughout other states serves as a reminder for the South Valley to be prepared for potential wildfires in our own region. At least two people are dead, 150 homes destroyed and 60,000 acres burned at the start of a fire season that came earlier than usual, officials said. Scorching heat this summer and tinder-dry conditions across the state have contributed to the fire danger.

We’ve seen the devastation here in the past. In 2002, the Croy Fire whipped across 3,000 acres in the mountains west of Morgan Hill and Gilroy and took seven days to extinguish. Residents of 34 burned homes came back after their evacuation to find many of their possessions turned into ashes. In 2007, sparks from a fire in a metal drums when a woman burned a pile of paper plates resulted in the Lick Fire that raged out of control for more than a week and sprawled across 47,760 acres including much of Henry W. Coe State Park. The fire cost $13 million to battle. It was one of the most devastating wildfires in Santa Clara County history.

We encourage our readers who live in areas of the South Valley who are threatened by wildfires to prepare for the day when such a conflagration might sweep toward their homes. You can learn many good safety tips on the CalFire website (www.fire.ca.gov). One of the top priorities is to maintain an adequate defensible space around your home, a buffer zone of about 100 feet between your home and the fuel of dry vegetation. Remove dead plants, grass and weeds the fire can burn as it approaches your house. Also harden your home’s defenses by using fire resistant building materials, especially on your roof where falling embers might land and ignite.

Before a wildfire strikes, prepare yourself and your family for the possibility of the need to leave your home. The first step is to create an action plan that includes an evacuation procedure for your family and pets. Decide on a designated meeting location outside the fire zone or hazard area, a place to gather and determine who has safely evacuated. Also consider different escape routes and practice these routes so everyone in your family is familiar with them in case of a fire emergency. If you have pets or large animals such as horses and other livestock, create an evacuation plan for them, too. It’s also smart to have a family communication plan that designates an out-of-area friend or relative as a point of contact. This person will act as a single source of communication among family members if anyone is separated. It is easier to call or message one person and let them contact others than to try and call everyone. Remember that phones, cell reception and Internet systems might be overloaded or limited during an emergency.

Also consider putting together well before any fire or other disaster an emergency supply kit for every individual in your household. Include in it items recommended by the American Red Cross and keep it easily accessible so you can take it with you if you have to evacuate. Plan to be away from your home for an extended period of time, so each person should have a readily accessible emergency supply kit.

In the event of a wildfire, have fire extinguishers on hand and train members of your family how to use them. (Also check expiration dates regularly to make sure they are still usable.) Make sure your family knows where your gas, electric, and water main shut-off controls are located and how to safely shut them down in an emergency situation.

If circumstances require you to evacuate in a wildfire, leave as soon as fire officials recommend you do so. This will help you avoid being caught in fire, smoke or road congestion. Evacuating the fire area early also helps firefighters keep roads clear of congestion, and lets them move more freely to do their job. In an intense wildfire, they will not have time to knock on every door. Take the initiative to stay informed and aware by listening to a radio or TV report for announcements from law enforcement and emergency personnel on evacuations. And of course, do not return to your home until officials determine it is safe.

Wildfires are a fact of life in California. And in Santa Clara County, the South Valley region with its thousands of acres of ranchland and wilderness areas is especially vulnerable to fires, especially in the summer and fall months when intense heat can dry up grass and brush and make them more susceptible to catch fire. With preparation and common sense steps in evacuating an area, you and your family can survive a potentially devastating wildfire emergency.