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The level of fire activity in May in California is not completely unexpected, but dramatic nonetheless. Fire officials and environmental monitors alike have been worrying and warning for months about the severity of the statewide drought conditions and their potential to give the fire season calendar a 180-degree spin. Forget the classic Santa Ana winds of late October - there is no more "in-season" for severe fires, it appears.

The images and stories coming out of the region further reinforce the need for property owners and community leaders to take action to prepare home ignition zones by limiting the opportunity for wind-driven embers and flames to ignite vulnerable roofs and decks or enter vents in homes and other structures. The image above from the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad shows homes igniting from embers that have blown into attics or onto roofs and gutters while the green vegetation around them is intact.

These same stories also tell about the broader impact of fires. Thousands of people have been evacuated and many more may have to take shelter elsewhere as fires burn around the region. Children have been kept at school for extra hours in places where it is too dangerous to let them go home or for anyone to drive on smoky roads. Schools and business have been forced to close, and a power outage along with the local fire conditions forced the popular Legoland California amusement park to evacuate guests and suspend operations. Firefighters are challenged to fight fire and attempt evacuations and rescue simultaneously, all under extreme fire and heat conditions. 

NFPA's Firewise program advises people to start with their home and work their way out to prepare it to resist ignition from wildfire. We champion the IAFC message, "Ready, Set, Go!" that includes preparation that can save lives. Ultimately, all of us faced with the reality of wildfire must take these steps but also do more to work with the local governments that maintain our infrastructure and services, the businesses that employ us, and the schools that educate - and shelter - our children. The need to apply the concept of Fire Adapted Communities becomes very clear at times like these. It's our whole community that will be affected during an extreme wildfire event. It should be our whole community that comes together ahead of time to plan, prepare and act to reduce our risks and losses.

Photo credit: NBC 7 San Diego

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present a 2 day Firewise Principles workshop to a bunch of fire professionals and community leaders at the Wildland Fire Training and Conference Center at the McClellan Business Park in Sacramento California.  During the course of the second day I had the privilege to learn about an interesting program that was born in California almost a quarter of a century ago.  The Volunteers In Prevention (VIP) program of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is an efficient fire prevention and loss reduction education force that serves the state at a local level.

According to Pete Padelford, the VIP Coordinator for the community of Blue Lake Springs located in Arnold, California there are essentially five areas where community volunteers can participate in the following activities:

  1. Fire and Life Safety Education
  2. Public Information Education
  3. Wildland Occupant Firesafe Program
  4. Red Flag, Holiday, and Arson Patrols
  5. Communications

Pete took on the role of CAL FIRE VIP Coordinator in February 2011, at the time the program had lost some momentum.  Pete being a successful business man in his previous life, made the necessary changes to bring the program back to the successful side.  Pete’s community in particular has really focused on item #3, Wildland Occupant Firesafe Program to great effect.  This effort is a collaboration between Blue Lake Springs Homeowners Association, CAL FIRE and the Ebbetts Pass Fire District.  It was exciting to learn about all the good work Pete and his cadre of volunteers are doing to make his community more fire safe (firewise).  This successful inspection program is based on the CA Public Resources Code 4291 and addresses properties with homes or other structures, and an Ebbetts Pass Fire District Fire Ordinance that addresses unimproved lots.  The initial impetus behind the inspections is one of awareness and education.  If, after appropriate inspection and notification without tangible modification and homeowner compliance, an enforcement officer from CAL FIRE is called in.  According to the Nancy Longmore of CAL FIRE, the VIP program is a critical component in reaching out to the community and has helped reduced agency (State) costs and at the same time is achieving the desired outcome of a more fire safe (firewise) community. It all starts with education and awareness.

Pete's VIP Keys to Success

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This past weekend, Pete and his volunteers planned and implemented their first Firewise Day and hope to become eligible for Firewise recognition in the coming months.  Based on the energy and efforts of the Pete and his VIP team I am confident the Blue Lake Springs community will one day be a recognized Firewise Communities/USA® site. 

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