Whether it’s the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura, the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County or the 2020 CZU Fire in Santa Cruz County, hundreds of thousands of Californians have been impacted by the ravages of wildfires, resulting in the destruction and loss of property and lives.
The Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County has launched a free educational service, called the Home Ignition Zone Assessment Program,a pilot program in which trained volunteers provide county residents advice on “home hardening and defensible space.”
On a recent warm, sunny Sunday, Lynn Sestak, Firewise Coordinator and HIZ Assessor, and her colleague, Tom Fidrych visited a Scotts Valley residence to provide an assessment of the home’s ability to withstand the heat and flames of a wildfire.
“Our priority is really about educating homeowners on the best way to protect their homes—and themselves—in the event of a wildfire,” said Sestak, who notes that while the Fire Safe Council has been around for about six years, the HIZ program is in its second year of operation.
Their entity is closely related to the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, which Sestak refers to as the “godmother” of the HIZ program.
“They’ve been shepherding us through our growth and providing funding,” said Sestak.
The Firewise USA Recognition program is a national program that CALFIRE and local FireSafe Councils help to promote through local education.
Firewise, said Sestak, is about taking communities like Montevalle in Scotts Valley and encouraging the neighbors to work together to safeguard their homes in ways that an individual homeowner may not be able to do.
“In this community, the homes are very close together, so the risk to one home amplifies the risk to its immediate neighbors,” said Sestak. She identified several simple fixes to mitigating disasters, including keeping roads clear for emergency vehicles, reducing flammable landscaping near homes and providing easy-to-read address signage.
Fidrych, the NFPA Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist on the team, is the “fire starter.” If on a home inspection he finds a material whose combustibility is a mystery, he’ll take it home and perform a few tests to determine its place on an ignition scale.
At a Montevalle home inspection, he found fine “gorilla hair” mulch surrounding the residence. According to the Fire Safe Marin website, “Gorilla Hair and other shredded bark mulches should be avoided within 30 feet of any structure. They burn hot and are extremely susceptible to ignition from embers.”
“If your neighbor’s home is closer than 50 feet and catches fire, it is possible it will spread to your home,” said Fidrych. “Firewise is a program where the volunteers will sit down with a group of neighbors—that solidifies the idea that we’re all in this together,” he said.
Fidrych said that research has shown that most fires spread as a result of embers, so maintaining defensible space on and around one’s home can go a long way in protecting property.
The CZU August Lightning Complex Fire that devastated the mountain slopes of the San Lorenzo Valley started in embers from a fire over six miles away, he said.
Some tips provided by Fidrych include placing fine mesh metal screening on gutters and covering openings to the building cavity(such as crawl space vents) with 1/8″ galvanized screening.; replacing wood slats along the privacy screen below the front deck Hardie Board, a durable, long-lasting and flame and fire-resistant fiber cement trim and siding option composed of cement, sand and cellulose fibers.
He also recommends trimming tree branches that are hanging close to homes, and removing low branches on trees and shrubs to remove ladder fuel (live or dead debris which can catch fire and create a ladder of flames to the top of the plant).
A quick tour of the Montevalle home found open spaces in decking where embers could fly though and catch fire; gorilla hair strewn alongside the home; dried leaves and grasses a few inches from the siding; an oak tree with branches overhanging the roof; shrubs and trees planted alongside the home (with several growing beneath the eaves of the home), and combustible material on the upstairs porch.
“We encourage residents to consider the flammable nature of their deck furniture. Consider replacing wicker furniture with metal furnishings, and keep flammable objects like brooms off of the wood,” said Sestak. In the event of an evacuation order, Sestak recommends pulling all combustible material off of a home’s deck or porch, if time allows. Otherwise, she says, “Grab the bare necessities and head out.”
In terms of protecting entire communities, Sestak encourages neighborhoods to seek Firewise accreditation (readyforwildfire.org). The national Firewise USA recognition program, is administered by the National Fire Protection Association and provides a collaborative framework to help neighbors in a geographic area get organized, find direction, and take action to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and community and to reduce wildfire risks at the local level.
The Firewise USA program is a part of California’s efforts to ensure communities are prepared against wildfire, and CAL FIRE Office of the State Fire Marshal’s new Community Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation Division works to assist local communities in receiving this designation.”
In addition to providing an extra layer of protection and communication in communities which may be susceptible to wildfires, Sestak notes that homeowners in participating neighborhoods can receive discounts on their fire insurance if they are covered under a participating agency. Across the country, there are about 2,500 recognized Firewise communities; 54 of these are in Santa Cruz County.
“We encourage our local communities to educate themselves about the wildfire prevention programs available,” said Sestak. “We’re ready to help.”
Interested in learning more about the HIZ and Firewise programs? Information is available at firesafesantacruz.org/HIZ and firesafesantacruz.org/firewise-usa-recognition-program.