By Patricia Wei
With warm temperatures, dry vegetation and little rain in the past year, parts of San Jose and Santa Clara County are at risk of wildfires. Here’s what residents can do to prepare for this year’s fire season.
Buildings near the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) are most at risk, said Erica Ray, spokesperson for the San Jose Fire Department. This area includes the Diablo mountain range—also known as the San Jose foothills—as well as parts of the county near the Santa Cruz mountains.
Last year, the WUI experienced wildfires sparked by a lightning storm, including the Santa Clara Unit (SCU) Lightning Complex Fire, which burned 393,624 acres. Residents can check the Santa Clara County Fire Safe Council’s resource to see if they live in at-risk areas.
Matt Tuttle, president of the San Jose Firefighters Local 230 union, said his team is preparing for fire season by training, gathering equipment and studying past wildfires. Depending on where wildfires hit, his team could be dispatched to fight them across the state, meaning they have to be prepared at all times.
“The unfortunate truth now is that fire season is becoming a year-round event,” Tuttle told San José Spotlight. “It’s starting earlier in the year and continuing later into the year.”
His advice for residents?
“Expect the unexpected,” he said. “The threat of a wildfire is always there. All it takes is a simple change of wind direction or strong gusts or a lightning storm, and that changes things drastically.”
San Jose District 4 Councilmember Dave Cohen hosted a town hall on May 20 with Corey Condren, community liaison for the firefighters union, about steps residents can take to prepare for the unexpected. Last year, some members of his district—which includes Alviso, Berryessa and North San Jose—were required to evacuate.
“In San Jose, you get a sense of comfort because it’s such a large city,” Condren said. “But I think people forget just how large San Jose is. Last year, there were evacuations here.”
Francisco Villalobos, a policy aide for Santa Clara County’s District 1, advises all residents to sign up for emergency notifications through AlertSCC. During a wildfire, the alert system will notify residents about wildfires near them and whether they should evacuate. District 1, the largest in the county, includes South and East San Jose, Monte Sereno, Los Gatos, Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
Tuttle and Condren recommended that residents should prepare to have their phones charged during wildfire season in order to receive emergency alerts.
Condren said in her presentation that most wildfires are started by humans, whether intentional or not. Fireworks, which are illegal in San Jose and most of Santa Clara County, can cause dangerous fires. Gilroy is the only city in the county that allows the use of “safe and sane” fireworks.
Last Fourth of July, all 33 of San Jose Fire Department’s engines responded to calls related to illegal fireworks, which Tuttle said caused delays in responding to other 911 calls.
“It’s unfortunate to go to these calls where somebody lighting off an illegal firework ends up catching their neighbor’s house on fire or catching a hillside on fire,” he said.
To deter the use of illegal fireworks, San Jose lawmakers are considering adopting the Social Host Ordinance, which would fine tenants and property owners for fireworks launched from their property.
Preparing your home
Condren and Ray advise residents to create defensible space that will withstand flying embers. This means removing dead plants, grass and weeds; cleaning debris from rain gutters; trimming trees that hang over rooftops and keeping branches a minimum of 10 feet from a chimney or other trees.
Condren also urged those in rural areas who have wood shake roofs to replace them, because they are likely to catch embers and burn.
Villalobos encouraged communities to sign up to become FireWise Sites. These groups can form community plans about what they can do in case of an emergency, and invite the local fire department to examine their neighborhood for any fire risks. More information about the sites and how to sign up can be found here.
Families are also advised to prepare a communication plan that contains the contact information of family members, doctors, insurance and more. A template of an emergency communication plan for families can be found here.
Go bags and evacuations
In preparation for a potential evacuation, Ray said residents should make emergency kits with first aid, a three-day supply of prescription medications and non-perishable food and water for each member of the household. She also suggested including copies of important documents such as home insurance and medical information.
Other items to put in a go bag include phone chargers and pet supplies. The bag should be placed somewhere that is easily accessible, Condren said.
In the event of a wildfire, local law enforcement is in charge of enforcing evacuations. If someone requires oxygen or has difficulty evacuating because of medical needs or other issues, Condren recommended notifying the police for assistance.
The return of wildfire season also brings back PG&E’s public safety power shutoffs, which the utility provider uses to decrease the risk of power lines catching fire if there is a red flag warning about wildfires in the area, low humidity and high winds. In the event of a power outage, refrigerators can keep food fresh for four hours and freezers for 48 hours if they remain shut, said Condren.
Last October, PG&E conducted power shutoffs because of hot, dry and windy conditions in the North Bay and East Bay mountains. The shutoffs affected 50,000 customers across 19 counties, including Santa Clara County.
The state fined PG&E $109 million for allegedly violating power shutoff guidelines in 2019.
Santa Clara County’s Emergency Management Department provides additional resources, including a disaster ready guide and a 12-month emergency preparedness guide, which can be found here.
Contact Patricia Wei at email@example.com.
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This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.