On the fire front, let’s not wait until it’s too late


By Royal Calkins

In light of the horrific fires in Paradise and Malibu and the earlier equally horrific fires in Santa Rosa and elsewhere, I am wondering what those of us living in Monterey County should be doing now to prevent similar nightmares here.

Reasonably solid efforts have been made in the past to address the obvious fire danger in this region of forests and canyons. In my canyon neighborhood off Highway 68, the Monterey County Regional Fire District has done a good job, especially this year, of scouting the danger spots, suggesting the removal of brush and trees too close to dwellings, and inspecting fire hydrants.

One of the fire crews even suggested that I trim a tree alongside my house to make it easier for fire engines to make it up my neighbor’s driveway in order to combat any fire threatening the rear of our properties. Good thinking. I had to borrow another neighbor’s chainsaw to get it done, but I got it done.

But these steps, I’m afraid, are helping to protect us only from the “normal” fire threat, the challenging but not entirely cataclysmic situation that existed before drought and climate change created conditions for these huge and uncontrollable infernos. The fires that destroyed homes in and around Big Sur last year and earlier were horrible, but think how much worse they could have been during the type of weather conditions that combined to destroy Paradise.

Watching the painful images from Paradise, I was struck by what wasn’t destroyed. The trees. Still towering over blocks and blocks of smoldering ruins are trees, many still with their green leaves. That fire obviously didn’t spread from branch to branch. It apparently spread from house to house. How many homes in Monterey County still have flammable roofs, flammable siding? Isn’t there a foam you can buy to coat your house in fire protection? You’d think I’d know the answer to that one by now.

I used to live just down the slope from Paradise and I visited often. I remember it as mobile home park after mobile home park. I would have thought mobile homes were relatively fire safe. Aren’t they wrapped in sheet metal? What do I know? I’m hoping a lot of people around here know a lot more than I do, and that that number grows.

Look at all the new subdivisions around Fort Ord. In many of them, it looks like a fellow standing in the side yard could touch two homes at once. Saves on land costs, for sure, but it also ensures that if the Smith home burns, the Garcia home is also a goner.

So should we stop building crowded subdivisions and stop construction in canyons and hillsides like where I live? Though I do say so myself, it is a very good question, but if we wait for the county planning department to answer it, we may never get an answer. (It looks to me like the county planners think themselves capable of one issue at a time no matter how long it takes.)

Have our various public safety agencies dusted off their disaster plans lately and considered whether they are up to the new challenges? Have any of neighborhood groups thought about creating safe zones?

Have we, as individuals, looked for ways to make our properties less vulnerable and to find ways to help the disabled and elderly make their escape?

I’m going to start by taking another loop around the property, looking for trees and brush that I could live without, and by trying to remember where I put that get-away box for that time that I don’t really want to think about.

Or, I guess I could just ponder climate change and hope that the climate changes back on its own.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “On the fire front, let’s not wait until it’s too late

  1. While I don’t know a lot about firefighting, I have been under evacuation notice 3 times for floods. In ‘95 and ‘98, firemen distributed written alerts to our fron doors: projected crest, what to pack, start preparing, sandbags, etc. Then, they knocked on our door and told us to leave…..METHODICALLY, FROM EAST TO WEST, ONE NEIGHBORHOOD AT A TIME. In ‘98, in the middle of the night, my husband awoke to a downpour, checked the river, called Mid Valley Fire Station. They answered the phone, told him they were evacuating Quail, and we’d be evacuated in an hour. He raised up heirlooms, packed the cat and food, located lodging, and then, woke me up to pack the suitcases. We left at 2am. There was only one lane of CV Road open, with deep standing water. A CHP Officer directed us to floor it, and we made it out of the valley. Two years ago, the river was rising….we were tracking the NOAA projections for Rosie’s bridge. Many, but not all of us who had registered, got a reverse 911 call to evacuate. We decided to wait and monitor, which was fine. My new neighbor, who had not registered, had no idea there was an evacuation order. Had it been the middle of the night, how many would have slept through the call? With Robo calls, how many have their phones on silent during the night?
    Now, look back a few years to the afternoon Saddle Mt. caught fire about 2pm. We heard the sirens, watched the fire retardant being dropped, monitored the winds. Concurrently, we lost both AT&T cell service, and Comcast landline….for 8 hours. Our copper line AT&T business line continued to function. Luckily OES did not need to call and evacuate us. Luckily, we had no medical emergency. What if the winds had been less favorable, and the Valley had need to be evacuated? Two lane, narrow road, at gridlock? Many of our neighborhoods have similar, narrow, winding roads. How does one escape?
    In ‘95, a friend was trying to get to the Crossroads to help Gil Wisdom, dismantle KRML, which was also under evacuation. It took him 4HOURS to get from Carpenter to the Crossroads. A few years back, we had a small fire Wednesday of car week on Robinson Canyon Rd…easily put out. What if that fire had started Friday of that week, during the Quail and the Werks events that caused total gridlock, WITHOUT AN EVACUATION IN PROGRESS? How would the fire trucks have gotten to it? Cars were parked on both shoulders of the CV Road, so traffic could not pull over and yield to emergency services. Royal, what if it happens in your neighborhood the Friday of Car Week, when 3 events are getting out, and commuters are going home? Even without a disaster, cell service is spotty, with so many additional users clogging up the towers
    Your sentence about the county is measured, accurate, and charitable. They were supposed to workshop and start a draft ordinance on events years ago. They tabled STRs and Carefree to jump to Marijuana, and events are no where in sight. How do we evacuate visitors? With cell service unreliable, should we go to sirens, as is done for tsunamis?
    I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you are raising this issue. Many of us have talked about it for years. I hope you’ll be as tenacious as you were with the brown act.
    This, my friends, is why we need investigative journalism.

  2. A very motivated and organized group of residents (300+) in the Camel Valley, CVSOS (Carmel Valley Save Open Space, a 501(c)3), are currently spear heading an effort to raise $3.3M to purchase the old 30 acre decommissioned Carmel Valley Airport in the Carmel Valley Village as a bulwark to providing fire protection for the entire Carmel Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. This space was used as a staging area to house 1500 fire fighting personnel and equipment (helicopters and fire trucks) during the 2008 Bear Basin Fire and numerous helicopters and fire fighting equipment during the Soberanes fire in 2016. The land is currently for sale and we must preserve this invaluable resource to protect our homes and our very lives. This use of this property has been taken for granted for many years by Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley residents and we must now act to preserve it for future fire fighting efforts.
    The property is currently for sale by the Mary Delfino Trust and she has indicated that CVSOS must act soon to acquire the property. Now is the time for a call to action and it is imperative that we protect our very future and not let a fire destroy our homes and neighborhoods.
    Please visit http://www.cvsos.org and pledge/donate funds to acquire this invaluable property to protect our homes and our well being.

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