Your bags are packed. The car is loaded up and you’re ready to hit the open road. Daydreams of floating the river, jumping into the chilly lake, and making s’mores by the campfire drift through your mind. The last thing you’d consider is the idea that the very campfire by which you’re toasting your toes and marshmallows could turn into something far more ominous. But the possibility is very real.
Although vacation is a time when you want to unplug, unwind, and hit the reset button, if you’re heading to the mountains for your time away this summer, it’s more important than ever to stay connected. Should a wildfire break out, it’s just as important for visitors to have a plan as it is for year-round residents. And with the growing popularity of short-term vacation rentals, it is paramount for owners of such units to share fire preparedness and evacuation information with their guests.
“The communication piece for visitors who are here for not a lot of time is complicated,” Truckee Fire Chief Bill Seline recently told Moonshine Ink. “The cellphone is the tool of choice these days.”
The tricky part about that, however, is that many people want a hiatus from technology when they’re on vacation and at nighttime they often power off. Seline and Truckee Emergency Operations Manager Robert Womack are hoping to change that. The goal, Seline said, is to get information out to the public quickly, with the method of choice being Nixle, an emergency alert tool that uses text messages and emails to notify residents about matters of public safety.
According to Womack, 9,400 people have opted-in to the Truckee Nixle system. While on average most areas employing the tool have a 10 to 15% opt-in rate, Truckee has over 50%. However, one question that remains is how many of those 9,400 are full-time residents versus second homeowners. Regardless, Womack said the Truckee rate is “way better than most places.”
Time is of the essence when it comes to wildfire emergencies. The time to act is when the first warning is issued. Don’t wait around for mandatory evacuation orders because by then it could be too late. As soon as a voluntary evacuation warning is issued, it’s go-time.
Fire season typically runs from June through September but can go as late as November.The greater Lake Tahoe region is a heavily traveled tourist area during that time frame, which makes it unique in what it could face with potentially unprepared or uninformed visitors encountering fire danger.
“Wildfire is the prime threat in our area,” Seline said. “To that end, we know it’s more likely to happen on particular days.”
The days to which Seline is referring are Red Flag days, when high winds coupled with extremely low humidity make for a dangerous combination. And these are the days that residents and visitors alike should take extra care to be prepared in the event a wildfire should break out. This includes leaving cellphones turned on at all times — especially overnight.
“Those are the days you’ve got to leave it on,” Womack reiterated of smartphones. He said another important proactive measure on Red Flag days is to be sure your car has a full tank of gas. “A lot of people don’t fuel up because of the [high] price. There’s only a limited amount of fuel and only one gas station in Truckee with a generator.”
On Red Flag days, “fire goes way faster than any fire engine could stop it,” said Seline, noting that area fire departments and homeowners associations throughout the region are proactive in notifying people of Red Flag conditions by way of signage.
“You need to know your way in to know your way to get out. That is your best first option,” Seline said of evacuation preparedness. “Pay attention to your phone — leave it on [when you’re] in the mountains at night. Go early. Don’t wait for the evacuation notice or for police to knock on your door.”
Although research shows that some people will leave right away, a great many tend to stall evacuation, a period referred to as milling time by fire professionals. This, said Seline, is risky thinking.
“Have a plan. Go early,” Womack echoed. “You’d rather be at the front of that pack than at the back.”
~ The following three pages feature key information to make yourself fire ready.
Emergency Supply Checklist
• Three-day supply of nonperishable food and three gallons of water per person.
• Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
• Prescriptions or special medications
• Change of clothing
• Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses
• An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveler’s checks
• First-aid kit
• Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
• Sanitation supplies
• Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
• Don’t forget pet food and water!
ITEMS TO TAKE IF TIME ALLOWS:
• Easily carried valuables
• Family photos and other irreplaceable items
• Personal computer information on hard drives and disks
• Chargers for cell phones, laptops, etc.
• Always keep a sturdy pair of shoes and a flashlight near your bed and handy in case of a sudden evacuation at night.
If You Have Pets
• Pet carrier for each pet
• Two-week supply of food and water
• Nonspill food and water bowls
• Pet first-aid kit
• Medications and dosing instructions
• Car litter box and litter
• Plastic bags for waste disposal
• Paper towels
• Toys and treats
~ Source: CAL FIRE
Sign up for Nixle emergency notifications. Nixle allows local fire departments and emergency services to put out alerts via text messages and emails, as well as through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, directly to your wireless device. Sign up at:
Nixle can also send voice alerts to landlines and messages to TTY/TDD systems.
In Truckee, residents and visitors can tune their radios to 1670 AM to receive emergency information. On the FM dial, KTKE 101.5 Truckee Radio is also a reliable source.
Are You Prepared?
“Wildfire is coming. Are you ready?” Through its “Ready for Wildfire — Ready, Set, Go!” Campaign, Cal Fire can help you be sure your answer is “yes!” Find extensive information about wildfire emergencies, such as what to do before and during an evacuation, and an educational video on fire preparedness at readyforwildfire.com.
North Tahoe Fire Protection District has on its website a helpful link to Cal Fire’s Homeowners Checklist, in addition to a checklist it offers in conjunction with the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District. Check it out at ntfire.net/prevention-1.
Last year, wildfires resulted in a record-breaking $12 billion in insurance losses in the state of California. According to Truckee Chief Bill Seline, 99% of homes with the proper defensible space of 30 feet around the structure can be saved in the event of a wildfire. Without it, you’re “adding fuel to the fire in your neighborhood,” he said. “You have a personal obligation and a moral obligation to the neighborhood” to have adequate defensible space, which includes keeping the roof cleared of pine needles.
Squaw Valley and along the Truckee River corridor, all homes and vacant lots will be inspected for defensible space compliance beginning June 18. Visit svpsd.org/svfd/wildland-fire-prevention for a checklist to be prepared for inspection.
It should go without saying that smoke detectors save lives. According to Cal Fire, approximately two-thirds of home fire deaths occur in houses without working smoke detectors. Properly working smoke alarms increase the chance of surviving a house fire by 50%. That means you should test your alarm and replace the batteries every six months. A good rule of thumb to remember is to do it in conjunction with daylight savings time: Change your clocks. Change your batteries.
Knowing how you get in helps you know how to get out in the event of a wildfire evacuation. If you’re traveling to a region with a known fire risk, pay attention on your ride in. If you know how to reach main thoroughfares such as I-80 or State Route 89, it will help guide you to a safe route should the need to evacuate arise. The Town of Truckee offers a helpful informational pamphlet called Evacuation Information During an Emergency that includes a handy map of the town with detailed routes from the various subdivisions to I-80 on-ramps.
Grab ‘n Go
For full-time residents, it’s crucial to have a “go-bag” packed and ready to, well, go.
Put together your emergency supply kit long before a wildfire or other disaster occurs and keep it easily accessible so you can take it with you when you have to evacuate. Plan to be away from your home for an extended period of time. Each person should have a readily accessible emergency supply kit. Backpacks work great for storing these items (except food and water) and are quick to grab. Storing food and water in a tub or chest on wheels will make it easier to transport. Keep it light enough to be able to lift it into your car.
Plan ahead. Know where you will take or leave your pets. In case you are not home when disaster strikes, arrange in advance for a neighbor to check on or transport your pets. Make sure your neighbors have your contact numbers (cell phone, work, home, etc.). In the event of evacuation, pets may not be allowed inside human emergency shelters; have an alternate prearranged location to take your animals.
Make sure your pets are always wearing properly fitted collars with personal identification, rabies and license tags.
Each animal should have its own pet carrier. Birds, rodents and reptiles should be transported in cages. Cover cages with a light sheet or cloth to minimize their fear.
Store vaccination/medical records, veterinary contact information, proof of ownership, a current photo, and a Disaster Preparedness Kit in one location.
If you must leave your pets, bring them indoors. Never leave pets chained outdoors!
Use a room with no windows and adequate ventilation, such as a utility room, garage, bathroom, or other area that can be easily cleaned. Do not tie pets up!
Leave only dry foods and fresh water in non-spill containers. If possible open a faucet to let water drip into a large container or partially fill a bathtub with water.
For information about evacuating livestock, visit readyforwildfire.org/Animal-Evacuation/
~Source: Cal Fire
Although the possibility of a wildfire emergency is the last thing on your mind when you’re on vacation and taking a break from reality, if you’re visiting places like the Tahoe National Forest the possibility of fire is all-too-real. Know how you got in and know how to get out. Don’t wait for mandatory evacuation orders; go early. If it’s a Red Flag day and it’s windy and you smell smoke and hear sirens, the time to get out is now!
If you are a second-homeowner and rent out your house on a short-term basis through sites like Airbnb or VRBO, it is highly suggested that you supply your guests with information about wildfire preparedness and evacuation measures. Some homeowners associations, like Tahoe Donner, mandate that such homeowners do so. It is crucial to educate guests on fire safety measures such as the fact that fireworks are illegal in the Tahoe Basin. Instruction on proper disposal of ashes is essential. Those unaware have been known to empty hot ashes into paper — even plastic! — bags and open dumpsters, according to Seline and Truckee Emergency Operations Manager Robert Womack.
“It’ll never be my fire.” That’s what Womack said people tend to think. But it’s not while they’re out in nature enjoying the ambience of an open campfire on a cool Sierra Nevada night. “It’s the next day, when they’ve left” that things can take a potentially tragic turn, he said.
In the last five years, Truckee Fire has responded to 50 incidents caused by campfires that were stoked by the wind. The problem stems from campfires that are not fully extinguished. People think that all is well after they’ve blasted their fire with a hose or buckets or water, or they think it’s out because they don’t see flames. The danger lies in the smoldering ashes which contain embers that could be hot for hours, even days, after the flames are extinguished. Should the winds pick up, those embers can get swept away and spark debris that in the height of summer can be like a tinder box, ready to blaze at any time. A properly and fully extinguished fire should be cool to the touch.
California has seen nine of the 20 most destructive fires in the state’s recorded history in the last five years. As a result, Truckee Fire Protection District is taking the preventive measure of banning all backyard-type campfires, as well as fire pits and charcoal grills, for the duration of fire season, which typically runs June through September, but even as long as November. Grills and firepits run on gas and are not part of the ban.
“The fire at people’s houses, in the backcountry, that’s the one that makes us nervous,” said Seline. “With the burn ban, we’re taking the piece of the fire starting out of that equation.”