Union Democrat staff

Last week's hot weather was a wake-up call.

Over four days of temperatures in the 80s and 90s, we were reminded briefly of what it's certain to be like for weeks or even months at a time in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties this summer. And, Cal Fire, local fire departments and firesafe councils throughout the area hope it will also remind us of how dangerous it will very soon become. Fire danger, judging from a recent spike in escaped debris burns, is already with us and will only get worse.

"We're in the third year of a drought and that's not going to change," said Nancy Longmore, a fire prevention specialist with Cal Fire's Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit headquarters in San Andreas. "Any rain we get from here on won't make any difference. It only eases the danger while it's raining and, maybe, for a few hours afterwards."

Some may take solace in the fact that, despite tinder-dry timber, brush and grass in our forests and wildlands, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have escaped catastrophic fires for several years. But past good luck is no guarantee of future fortune.

"Every fire season has the potential to be the worst," warned Longmore.

Take the dry conditions that are certain to hit us, and add the wild cards of lightning, carelessness, machinery sparks, illegal fireworks, escaped campfires or even "hot squirrels" falling from short-circuited electrical lines, and there's plenty potential for trouble.

But the good news is that you can - and, in fact, must - do something about it: Clear 100 feet of defensible space around your home.

Just ask Al and Sue Vilums, of Mariposa County. The clearing they did probably saved their Midpines-area home from last summer's Telegraph Fire, which destroyed two nearby homes and blackened everything in sight.

"We try to clean around the house pretty well," said Al after the fire.

Law requires a "clean, green zone" out 30 feet from your home. Here all flammable debris, like pine needles and leaves, must be removed. Trees and bushes must be well-spaced and pruned. Limbs must be trimmed at least 10 feet back from chimneys.

The next 70 feet is a reduced-fuel zone, where plants and brush still must be spaced apart. Brush or smaller trees should also be trimmed back from larger trees, so flames don't use the lower-lying brush to climb into the timber.

Although purists will say that the safest time to clear for fire is during a rain storm, spring weather is still good for clearing if you're careful. Or if you hire an experienced professional to do the job for you.

Burning permits will be required on May 1, and after that restrictions may be tightened quickly or permits suspended altogether.

"So be careful," advises Longmore. "If your burn escapes, you'll create just what you're trying to prevent."

Or you can haul slash to these yard-waste dumps:

Tuolumne County - The Plainview Slash Site, across from the west entrance to Twain Harte on Highway 108.

Calaveras County - Miller Rock and Wood in Avery, Calaveras Forest Products in Camp Connell and Red Hill Yard and Wood Waste in Vallecito.

There are many reasons to clear: It's the law, and you could face a fine if you don't do it. Insurance carriers are getting more strict about clearance, and your coverage may be affected.

Not only does clearing make your home safer, but makes your neighbors' safer as well.

But the most crucial moment may come amid that fire we all hope will never happen. It's when the fire engine comes up your driveway as the flames and advance, and the crew chief scans your property and asks himself one question: "Can we make a stand here."

You want the answer to be "yes."