Gearing up for fire season

Create defensible space to protect structures
By: Marci Seither
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The month of May brings a number of anticipated activities: baseball, graduations and time to get out in the garden. It also marks the beginning of fire season, which officially starts on May 11.
Last week’s Santa Barbara fires where more than 30,000 residents were evacuated serves as a stark reminder to foothill residents to take a serious look at minimizing the risk of wildfires.
Last year firefighters stationed at Colfax’s CalFire station responded to more than 800 calls.
CalFire, which was established in 1885, has grown from a wildland firefighting unit to an all-risk agency that also responds to structural fires, automobile accidents, medical aid, swift water rescue, hazardous material spills, train wrecks and natural disasters like floods and earthquakes.
“The first and foremost advice we give residents concerns the defensible space around their property. It is vital to take care of debris as soon as possible,” cautions Fire Battalion Chief Chris Paulus. “Many times when there is a late rain, like the one we recently experienced, people get relaxed in their property management and wait until the last minute. By then the burning season is over.”
Instead of burning, he added, residents can make use of CalFire’s chipping program, which will be available, as long as the budget allows.
“The second thing is to make sure the house number is clearly marked and visible from the road,” continued Paulus, a 30-year veteran firefighter. “Snow plows often will knock signs over. If there is an emergency we need to be able to quickly find you.”
Community awareness and education plays a large role in helping cut the risk of fire danger.
“We have between 25 and 30 volunteers within Colfax and the surrounding areas, such as Alta and Dutch Flat, who are an integral part of what we do,” said Paulus.
Because of the consumable fuel, weather and topography, CalFire has requested the city of Colfax be upgraded to a severe fire hazard zone.
“That does not affect the 100-foot radius we want cleared from around existing building structures,” Paulus explained. “The change of zoning encourages the use of more fire resistant materials in construction.”
Captain Scott Lynn of Alta’s CalFire station agrees with Paulus’ view on the importance of community involvement.
“I am here to serve and protect,” said Lynn. “Each year we try to minimize the impact of fire damage, but we can’t do it all by ourselves. Being informed and having situational awareness is a big part of what we try to communicate to the public.
“It may be burn day, but if the situation changes, a manageable pile can quickly get out of control and lead to potential hazard. What seems like dying embers can quickly become a potential for hazard,” Lynn said. “Defensible space checks are a great way for us to interact with those we serve. We want to help people understand what they can do to protect themselves.”
Throughout California, there are 803 CalFire stations staffed by 4,700 firefighters as well as seasonal crews and community volunteers. These crews respond to more than 5,600 wildland fires that burn more than 172,000 acres each year.
“That is the risk of living in a fire danger area. We don’t want people to feel they need to moonscape their property,” said Lynn, who worked with the Tahoe Fire Department for 13 years before moving to the Alta station lest year. “To thin out trees and limb up branches is more than a matter of defensible space, it is good forestry heath and management.”
While the threat of a wildfire is out of our control, being prepared and proactive in minimizing the risk is something everyone can do.

Fire safety tips
— Trim branches away from the roof.
— Make sure gutters are free from dry leaves and pine needles.
— Keep branches 10 feet away from the chimney.
— Clearly mark all emergency water sources.
— Keep a fire extinguisher in your home and vehicles.
— Designate an emergency meeting place outside your home.
— Maintain a 100-foot defensible space around all buildings.
— Clearly mark your house address.
— Call CAL FIRE station to schedule a defensible space check.
— Keep within guidelines for permittable burn piles.
— For more information on how to be fire safe, visit
— To obtain a free burn permit or to sign up for the chipping service, call 889-0111.
— To obtain a free CalFire defensible space inspection, call 389-2234.