Last year’s deadly Camp Fire that killed 85 people and incinerated the town of Paradise is still weighing heavy on the minds of Tuolumne County residents and government officials as this year’s fire season approaches.
It was clear in the responses from some of the roughly 80 to 100 people who attended a community meeting Thursday night hosted by the county in downtown Sonora to receive tips on ways they can protect themselves and their families from a similar fate.
“I’m very concerned about fire prevention and evacuations because Sonora really does look like Paradise,” Sonora resident Ann Segerstrom replied when asked why she attended the meeting.
Officials from various public safety agencies within the county explained the services they provide in response to disasters, but they stressed that their limited resources can only go so far and that’s why it’s important for people to put in the effort to prepare themselves for the worst case scenario.
One example of a community that’s actively heeding the message of personal responsibility is in East Sonora, where a group of neighbors have formed the county’s first “Firewise” site through the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA.
The group received confirmation this week that their application had been accepted after working for the past couple of months to get organized and develop an action plan for goals they want to accomplish over the next six months to improve the community’s resilience to fires.
Known as TELLARA, which stands for Tuolumne Lambert Lake Access Road, the area consists of the neighborhoods of Lambert Lake Estates, Christian Heights and Whispering Pines.
Ed Fernandez, of Lambert Lake Estates, spearheaded the process after hearing about the Firewise USA program at a meeting of neighbors he gathered late last year to talk about what they could do to prevent their community from becoming the next Paradise.
“I’m not the type of person who likes to keep their head in the sand and say it can never happen here, because it can,” he said.
The program was launched in the early 2000s by the NFPA in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry organizations as a way to reduce the number of homes being burned down due to wildfires.
There are now more than 1,500 active Firewise communities throughout the United States, including 193 in California, which went from the state with the seventh most two years ago to the most this year.
Calaveras County has 11 Firewise communities, while Tuolumne County currently has the one recently formed Firewise community and four pending ones that cover Lakewood Estates in Twain Harte, Pine Mountain Lake in Groveland, Valley View area in Sonora, and Yosemite Road in Columbia.
The program is somewhat similar to Neighborhood Watch, but for fire safety as opposed to crime.
Communities that are accepted into the program receive signs that distinguish them as a certified Firewise site, access to information and guides on how to best go about improving their resilience to fire, and potential opportunities for grants and discounts on homeowners insurance.
Beyond those benefits, the program is meant to inspire community building through neighbors getting to know each other and mobilizing coordinated efforts to achieve a common goal.
“It’s really just about going out and cleaning up your own property, or maybe we’ll get together some volunteers to help a neighbor who can’t do it himself,” Fernandez said.
Applying for the program is free but requires a group of people willing to put in the time it takes to conduct a wildfire risk assessment, form a board or committee that oversees the annual completion of requirements to remain in good standing with the program, and develop an action plan.
Only areas with eight to 2,500 dwelling units are eligible for the program. The recently approved TELLARA site in East Sonora consists of about 150 dwelling units and about 450 residents.
Fernandez said the most challenging part was finding people who wanted to be on the committee, which consists of him, co-leader Robert Ingalls, Mike Queneville, Harold Mittmann, and Chace Anderson.
Among the people who Fernandez said assisted them with establishing the Firewise site were Karen Caldwell, of the Highway 108 FireSafe Council, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Loren Monsen, and liaisons at the NFPA and Cal Fire.
The group plans to hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. on April 17 at St. Matthews Lutheran Church on Joshua Way, as one of the requirements to remain in the program is hosting at least one community event each year.
Fernandez said he hopes that more communities throughout the county will be inspired to join the program as well.
“If people aren’t doing it around us, then what we’re doing here might not matter,” he said. “The whole county has to cooperate, or there will be a link in the chain that’s going to break and it’s all going to be for nothing.”
People interested in applying for the program can do so by going to www.firewise.org , or by contacting Pete Munoa, deputy chief of land-use planning at Cal Fire and state liaison for the Firewise USA program, at Pete.Munoa@fire.ca.gov or (916) 324-0014.
Munoa said the only insurer in the nation currently offering discounts on insurance for Firewise sites is the USAA, which is for current and former members of the U.S. military and their families, but Cal Fire is working to convince others to do so as well.
The USAA currently offers a discount of 5 percent.
Munoa attributed increase in communities joining the program over the past two years to the destructive blazes throughout the state over that same period.
“A lot of people are getting involved to see what they can do to be more proactive at protecting their community,” he said. “They are finding there are programs like this that can help them accomplish those goals.”
Some of the goals listed in the East Sonora group’s action plan include asking Cal Fire to do neighborhood and individual home assessments, scheduling volunteer help days to encourage neighbors to assist those who are less able, and seeking funding for fuel reduction and/or tree removal where needed.
Scott Witt, deputy chief of fire plan and prevention grants with Cal Fire, said the state will be handing out $1 billion over the next five years for projects to improve forest health and reduce the number of acres and structures destroyed by wildfires.
Firewise sites could get a competitive edge through the designation.
“Communities that have a designation like that clearly show community effort, community support and are definitely given a little more favor in the grant scoring process,” he said.
County officials also applauded the neighborhoods in East Sonora for their efforts to become a Firewise site.
The county has applied for a $96,000 grant to help other communities become Firewise sites and provide assistance for work related to it, according to County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who worked on the grant in the Office of Emergency Services prior to being elected.
“It’s a really good thing because it gets buy-in from the community and makes it a broader effort,” Campbell said of how the program assists in the county’s current efforts. “We’re a small county with limited resources, and county government can’t just by itself provide for all of the fire safety needs that we have, so we need buy-in from the community to do that.”
Liz Peterson, the county Office of Emergency Services coordinator, said the Firewise concept works in tandem with projects the county is undertaking or plans to undertake that also aim to reduce the threat.
Peterson said the county recently began a roadside fuels reduction program on 26 major roads in the county totaling 140 miles funded by a $1.6 million grant through the state’s cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions.
About $500,000 of that grant will also be used to help seniors and low-income residents clear defensible space around their homes, though Peterson said they are still working on the details and hope to get the program running in May.
County officials in the Community Resources Agency are also working to identify roads that could pose a problem for evacuations due to their condition and looking for ways to improve them.
About 14,000 dead trees have also been cut down and removed from along roads and homes as a result of the county’s efforts to combat tree mortality over the past two years, not including those removed by other entities.
The county has also applied for a $2.5 million for more on-the-ground work to reduce the fire threat, which includes the money for assisting communities to become Firewise sites.
“Hopefully, people get the sense that the county agencies are involved and engaged,” Peterson said.
One of the ways the county is trying to inform people is through the “fire safety and evacuation preparedness” meetings in different communities. The one on Thursday at the County Administration Center in Sonora was fifth since Peterson has hosted since last month.
Peterson said the attendance at most the meetings has been about the same as Thursday night, though one in Cedar Ridge on March 21 had double the amount of people as the rest.
The presentations have stayed mostly the same at the various meetings, according to Peterson.
Cal Fire officials explaining the importance of maintaining defensible space around homes and tips for “hardening” homes to make them less likely to ignite from stray embers, while Sheriff Bill Pooley and Undersheriff Neil Evans encouraged people to take the time to drive local roads and plan escape routes and sign up for the Everbridge emergency notification system.
The meetings are part of the first steps in an initiative approved by the county Board of Supervisors at the start of the year to prioritize helping communities become more resilient in the wake of the Camp Fire.
“I would say generally that the Camp Fire has heightened everybody’s awareness to the need to make some changes,” Peterson said. “Maybe some people didn’t see it as a priority before, but it’s certainly a significant issue right now.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.