California, Oregon, and Washington have had another dry winter, spring, and summer in 2021. The drought and fear of another scary fire season have caused residents of these states to take every measure they can to be prepared.
Drought appears to be the new normal in the West, so many of us are resigned to living through another multi-year drought. This blog will point out some of the measures we take by explaining how to prepare for a fire. Whether you live on a ranch, farm, or small rural homestead, having a fire preparation checklist will help you be ready should a wildfire erupt near you. The time to get ready is now. Develop a drought plan before you are desperate.
The 2020 water situation was bleak, and it has continued into 2022. Water trucks are running nonstop, and wells and ponds are being used down to the last drop if they have water at all. Most of the large lakes in the Golden State were made by damming rivers and streams. The streams have dried up, and the rivers are running low.
The largest local man-made lakes, Lake Mendocino, and Lake Sonoma to the south of us, are at most one-third full. Most of the remaining water has been allocated for agriculture. We are at the northern-most end of the wine appellation regions in California, and many of the vineyards downstream from these lakes depend on that water for the success of their crops.
Although it is flourishing, the legal cannabis industry is threatened by these severely dry conditions too. Growing cannabis requires a lot of water for most of the season until harvest from the end of September to the end of October. Commercial and organic farming, residential gardening, orchards, and landscapes also need water. So, there is plenty of competition for an increasingly scarce resource.
The current situation demands attention. Alarm bells are going off. Local water districts have demanded that homeowners cut their water consumption by 50%. The cost of water has gone up too.
In response to the increased threat of wildfires, rural property owners have been alarmed enough to clear trees within 100 feet of their homes. Unfortunately, high winds usually accompany forest fires, making defending your rural home almost impossible. Here are some steps you can take that could make a difference.
Another major result of the recent drought years is the poor health of California forests. When trees get inadequate rainfall year after year, they start to shed leaves and needles. Then entire branches become weakened and die. Finally, entire mature trees that have taken many years to reach full size will succumb.
These standing dead trees pose an extreme fire hazard. If you own acreage with conifer trees, you can thin the trees to a minimum of 10 or 20 feet apart. This requires a lot of hard physical labor. Most likely, you will have to use heavy equipment with a cost that quickly adds up. The hope is that the remaining trees will get an adequate amount of water from what rainfall there is. The ground underneath will still be shaded by the remaining trees’ branches and valuable homes nearby will be safer.
In California, the law requires every property owner to create a defensible space of 100 feet around their home. You should create a “Lean, Clean and Green Zone” by removing all flammable vegetation within 30 feet surrounding your home. Clear out all small wood litter (dying branches, dead leaves, and needles) and dead seasonal grasses by raking the ground away from all buildings down to bare earth. Large trees do not have to be removed if all plants beneath them are taken out. Remove all lower branches of trees at least six feet from the ground. If you are landscaping, use all fire-resistant plants.
Stack woodpiles at least 30 feet from all structures and remove all vegetation within 10 feet of woodpiles. Remove or move all construction materials away from your home and other outside structures. Contact your local fire department to see if debris burning is allowed in your area, what the regulations are and if you need a permit. Make sure there is a hose with an adequate water supply located nearby.
Emergency Water Supply
Maintain an emergency water supply that meets fire department standards regarding the following:
- A community water/hydrant system
- A cooperative emergency water storage tank with neighbors
- If your water comes from a well, consider an emergency generator to operate the pump during a power failure
- Home Access, Design, Construction and Roof Materials
You need to follow all the recommendations and instructions regarding home access, design, construction, and roof materials. See “How to Make Your Home Safe” at www.fire.ca.gov. Personal behavioral changes are mandatory for sure if we want to keep ourselves safe. You should be very careful when you're participating in everyday activities, such as barbecuing or using fire pits. Observe and obey all burn laws and guidelines.
Avoid Breathing Smoky Air
Unhealthy air now is quantifiable for everyone with the advent of apps on your phone or online. There's an app that will show you the air quality index in your area or anywhere in the world. Here in Northern California and across the western United States and Canada, the air can often get into the unhealthy range. This can occur for days or weeks when a large wildfire or multiple forest fires occur.
Purchasing an air purifier for the inside spaces of your home is a wise investment because this situation is becoming increasingly common from August until December. Staying inside on the bad/smoky days is smart and exercising indoors as best you can be also a smart thing to do. If you must go outside, wear an N95 mask that can help filter out particulates before they get into your nose, mouth, and lungs.
Speaking about how to protect ourselves from these periods of drought reminds me of the inability of conifer and deciduous forests to regenerate after a fire sweep through. It has me thinking 2022 would be a great year to visit some of our fragile national forest and parklands. In the southwestern U.S., the current talk is that up to 30% of forests are in danger of converting to shrubland. Smaller, slower-growing trees and shrubs as well as tall, majestic trees that have been alive for hundreds of years are dying because of drought and wildfires. The same forests are having a tough time coming back.
Every time I visit my mountain property where the well has run dry and the year-round creek is barely trickling, I see large, beautiful oaks, pines and Douglas fir trees looking sick and dying. In Canada and Siberia, where higher temperatures occur regularly, and even in Europe, where the forests are strictly managed, there are the worrying effects of climate change.
Those of us who have lived through California’s driest four-year period (2014-2017) since records have been kept and have experienced the burning of many of our friends’ homes and properties caused by forest fires are aware of the danger. Preserving forests is imperative not just for the sake of individual property owners but for all earth's creatures. Forests absorb about 25% of all carbon emissions each year. If the current climate change continues to run its course, what will replace the forests we once thought of as eternal?