The ongoing drought in California has worsened this year by a lack of rainfall as well as early snowmelt in the Sierras. The parched ground soaked up runoff that should have gone to rivers and reservoirs. With summer approaching, seasonal high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation increase the risk of fire in forests and around residences and businesses.
“It has already been predicted to be an extreme fire season,” said Hollister Fire Department Battalion Chief Charlie Bedolla. “We always say, ‘this year is going to be the worst,’ and then it gets even worse than we thought.”
All of San Benito county falls within some degree of fire danger. Cal Fire maintains a Fire Severity Zone Map which allows for address searches so visitors to the site can ascertain their location’s level of fire risk. The San Benito County Severity Zone map is available here.
In 2021, Bedolla said, the fires within the county were relatively easy to handle, with the department devoting most of its resources to assisting Cal Fire throughout the rest of California.
Last year, according to Cal Fire statistics, fires burned 2,568,948 acres in 8,835 incidents, with three fatalities and 3,629 structures damaged or destroyed. San Benito County was fortunate last year as it only had one fire in the state responsibility area, the Panoche Fire, which burned 145 acres.
“We kept it nice and tight, and we did not get hit hard,” Bedolla said, “But we were going everywhere else in California where it was burning.”
Lynn Overtree lives in San Juan Canyon and, having been involved in the California Fire Safe Council, is well aware of the ways areas around homes can be made more fire resistant.
“I got involved because San Juan Canyon is a very high-risk fire area,” she said. “There is only one road in and one road out. We inherited property that was pretty well managed. But we live on a ridge which is very dry and it would be very hard to handle. So we knew, living here, we would have to keep our eyes wide open.”
Keeping fire risk down in her area has turned into a community effort, involving the constant clearing of vegetation.
“Some of the neighbors have gotten a dumpster from Recology,” Overtree said. “About five people get out there with weed whackers and clippers on Friday and Saturday mornings. And we also have community meetings, trying to engage people and get them to be aware of the hazards.”
Overtree and her neighbors have become proactive to reduce risks if a fire should start.
“We have six or so people in the canyon who are amateur radio operators,” she said. “They have created zones that they monitor and they run radio drills weekly because communication can be a big issue. We also have evacuation routes through San Juan Oaks, the Brigantino Ranch, and one through Hollister Hills. We usually drill one of those a year to be sure everyone knows it.”
Bedolla said that we are early enough in the season that subdivision and rural homeowners could benefit from Cal Fire’s Ready, Set, Go Program, which outlines three important fire prevention and safety components.
The first component is to build defensible space around your home and take steps to lower the risk of fire inside the house.
“Make sure you have clear access around your home,” Bedolla said. “Make sure that your roof and gutters are clean and that your landscape is trimmed back. Have a supply of water and keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and living room. Don’t leave candles unattended. Install your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. These are simple things you can do to protect your house.”
According to Bedolla, Hollister Fire Department has weed abatement programs and is in the process of getting a weed abatement measure passed that would encompass the county.
“A lot of times, it is just educating the property owner,” he said. “We usually get compliance that way because nobody wants to lose their home to a fire. But we ask that everyone be aware of overgrown areas and if they see something, say something. There are a lot of eyes out there, and we are hoping they will be proactive in assisting us.”
The second component is to prepare a plan for taking what you need for short-term survival in case of evacuation, and prepare to abandon your home.
“You should always have three days of water and food available,” Bedolla said. “Find out where the shutoffs are for your water and gas. And prepare a family evacuation plan so that everyone will know where to go in case of an emergency.”
Cal Fire offers checklists targeted at different family types and age groups, including seniors and people with disabilities, to help prepare for emergencies and suggestions for dealing with potential insurance claims after a fire. The site also has guides that assist in explaining emergency situations to children in a way that does not frighten them.
The third component is how to respond when fire draws near, threatening to overwhelm a neighborhood.
“It is another example of ‘see something, say something,’” Bedolla said. “Alert your neighbors. Don’t assume that they saw it just because you did. Then gather your family and pets and go. The best thing you can do is get out of there so we can get in. We will be out there, working on the fire and trying to establish evacuation centers in the neighborhoods to provide a safe haven.”
While homeowners might be afraid to leave their homes or be tempted to stay behind to hose down their houses as the fire approaches, Bedolla said those instincts show an unfortunate ignorance of how fires and firefighting work.
“Remember, if we are going in there,” he said, “we are not going to be able to fight the fire if we have to spend time doing rescues. Saving lives is always No. 1 for us, and that takes away from our resources to save property.”
“We are out there to help,” Bedolla said. “Don’t be afraid to call the fire department. We are all about life safety, and we are not out to hammer people if they ask for help or if they see something they do not think is fire safe. We will send someone out to assess things and talk to people about how to make their homes and properties fire safe. ”
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