Photo courtesy the Orange County Fire Authority
Firefighters battle the flames of the 2007 Santiago Fire in Orange County from the backyard of a home. File photo.
The easiest time to fight a wildfire is now — before they start. And firefighters say there’s a lot you can do around the house, without spending too much money, to prep your home for fire season.
Santa Ana winds whipped flames through the canyons of Chino Hills and Yorba Linda during the Freeway Complex Fire two years ago.
The fire damaged or destroyed more than 300 homes. It also showed that even homes that don't directly border wildland are in danger.
"For years I think we had the impression that because we build a newer community that has a fuel-modification zone around it, that has a non-combustible roof and stucco siding, that we’re prone and safe from wildfires," says Patrick Antrim, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority.
"And the Freeway Fire clearly taught us that that’s not the case and where we live in that interface area against the wildlands, we are at risk of wildfire. And our success of protecting our home really is based on what we do to prepare for a wildfire."
Antrim says by the time you see smoke in the sky, it’s too late to do that preparation. He says the key is starting now.
"There’s a variety of things that we can do, such as boxing in our eaves, screening in any of the air vents into the attic space, reducing the combustible materials that our home is made out of, installing double-pane windows, changing the landscape vegetation in our backyards to ones that are a lot less prone to wildfires," Antrim says.
He says some of that is cheap, such as putting screens on attic air vents or thinning out backyard vegetation.
But some of it can be expensive. He suggests making the pricey changes in steps. When a window breaks, get a double-pane replacement. If you can get a new roof a few years early, do it.
Those tips are part of the "Ready, Set, Go!" fire action plan, a program adopted by Orange County to prepare for wildfires.
But what if a wildfire breaks out before you fire-proof your home?
Antrim says if the fire is far enough away and if you have time, there are things you can still do.
"One of those is to remove all of the combustible materials away from the house, so that if it does ignite, that heat radiation won’t then ignite your home," Antrim says.
"The wood pile is right directly against the back wall of your house. An ember gets in that woodpile, you’re going to lose your house. Inside the home, make sure the windows are closed. Make certain that if you have heavy drapery or metal blinds, close those so that it will reflect the radiant heat back out."
If you have soft, wispy curtains, take them down. They can easily catch on fire.
And you can turn on your porch light, too. That way, it’s easier for firefighters to find your house in heavy smoke, especially in rural areas.
"But don’t spend a whole lot of time taking efforts or doing things that may prove to be a risk to your life. That's well ahead of the fire," Antrim says. "When embers are beating against your window, it’s too late to be doing those things."
Antrim says it’s a good idea now to pack sentimental items into easy-to-reach boxes. Or make a list of things to grab. It’s tough to think straight when you’re suddenly forced to evacuate.
And firefighters say if you feel like you’re in danger — like when the smoke gets thick — you should get going even if you haven’t heard an official evacuation order.
Fire offiicials say it's better to get out early to avoid getting stuck in traffic jams and to get out of the way of firefighters who are trying to make their way into your neighborhood. They say don't rely on an evacuation notice as the only trigger to leave.
In the words of Battalion Chief Patrick Antrim, "As tragic as it is to lose a home, it's worse when you're not around to rebuild your home."
Firefighters say if you evacuate and it ended up you didn't need to, you can chalk it up to a successful fire drill.