Hollister Fire Department Battalion Chief Charlie Bedolla has a word of advice for homeowners in general and residents of outlying areas in particular: be prepared.
San Benito County is having the driest year to date in 127 years of record-keeping, and according to CalFire, the record low water supply has placed the county in extreme drought conditions. We are not alone: 41 of California’s 58 counties were declared by the state as drought emergencies.
In the history of the Hollister Fire Department, 2020 was its worst year, with a 35% increase in incidents. With the extremely dry conditions and high winds, the county could see the return of catastrophic fires—or worse—something the Hollister Fire Department and CalFire are already working to prevent, particularly in the San Juan Canyon area, where the priority is people over property.
“The winds are unpredictable, the heat is unpredictable, the fuel is unpredictable, and there are only two exits,” Bedolla said. “We know if a fire starts up there, it is going to be hot and fast. We do have the CalFire aircraft that can get there fast, which will buy a little time to get people out of there. We need people to be prepared and ready so when it is time to pull the trigger and leave, they can get out of there.”
Part of the firefighting is being done now—clearing out hazardous brush and looking for possible problem spots in San Juan Canyon, south of San Juan Bautista, and other rural areas. CalFire does defensible space inspections where they give homeowners an evaluation of safety risks. The area is checked to make sure responders will know all its details if a fire breaks out.
“The Fire Safe Council has done some fire evacuation drills, so they know different routes in and out of there,” Bedolla said. “They are doing their due diligence with their communications and ham radio operations in case the phone lines go out. They have good accountability and they know who is who and where is where. That way when we say, ‘Is everyone out? Is everyone clear?’ they would be able to communicate that to us.”
Bedolla urges homeowners to take responsibility for their properties and do exterior inspections to find ways of reducing the risk of fire spreading. The reality is that some houses are ultimately doomed or present too much of a risk to firefighters to save because of a lack of preparation.
“You want to help us to help you save your house,” Bedolla said. “When we go out there, we will triage a house and we will basically say if it is a no-go or a salvageable house. Unfortunately, there are people who have done nothing to get ready. They have combustibles, trees and bushes growing all over the place. We are going to automatically know there is no hope in saving that house.”
Bedolla said residents also need to be sure they are not the source of the fire themselves, or act in ways that complicate the job of the firefighters.
“People need to understand how easy fires start,” he said. “It is unpredictable and you never know. It could be from someone who has an old burn pile or mulch pile that ignites up. It could be someone with a barbecue. It could be someone deciding to have a bonfire, with embers that spread in the wind or a neighbor with fireworks. We had all the dry lightning fires last year hitting vulnerable spots. So we do continuous inspections and we have a year-round educational process trying to make sure people are fire-safe. They need to stay proactive with it, maintaining their defensible space or even increasing it.”
According to CalFire, other causes of wildfires include sparks from chains dragged by vehicles or trailers; dry grass ignited by hot catalytic converters or mufflers; brakes that are worn too thin; cigarettes thrown out of windows; and lawnmower blades striking rocks. They developed the One Less Spark campaign to help inform people of unexpected sources of wildfires.
Bedolla recommends visiting CalFire’s Ready for Wildfire website which has important tips on fire safety, and a downloadable app to analyze risk in a fire and prepare an evacuation plan. It also includes sections on creating defensible space, hardening a home using fire-resistant materials, and preparing emergency evacuation supplies.
Bedolla will be attending the Fire Safe Council meeting at Jardines Restaurant at 115 Third Street in San Juan Bautista on June 17 at 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and will address the issues of fire danger.
“We will have some literature out there so people who might not have access to the site can still get the information,” Bedolla said. “It will cover everything from making your evacuation plan to getting your animals out, to what to do if you are trapped. We really recommend people come and check it out. The more you can do to protect your own home, the better our chances are of doing our job to stop these fires.”
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