Firefighters ask homeowners to lend helping hand

Firefighters in La Cañada Flintridge are urging homeowners to “harden” their homes against the threat of wildfires by complying with ongoing department brush clearance inspections and taking extra steps to secure their properties against the potential threat of free-flying embers.

Since May 1, teams from L.A. County Fire Station 82 on the city’s east side have been conducting annual brush clearance inspections at some 450 homes along the La Cañada’s forest-adjacent northern perimeter as well as hilly and wooded areas to the south.

Hundreds of other homes west of Chevy Chase are currently under inspection by teams from Fire Station 19 on the city’s west side.

“The message is: Help us help you. Give us a better opportunity to save your home, and you can do that by providing clearances so we don’t have to put our people at great risk to protect it when fire is coming through,” L.A. County Assistant Fire Chief Bill Niccum said Tuesday during a discussion of home wildfire safety protocols at Station 82 that was also attended by Mayor Dave Spence.

In 2009, fire officials throughout California introduced the Ready! Set! Go! Wildfire Action Plan, encouraging homeowners to “ready” fire-defensible landscapes, “set” evacuation plans, and “go” early if evacuated in order to clear the way for firefighters.

According to county fire regulations, homeowners in high fire-risk areas must thin out vegetation to varying degrees up to 200 feet from their homes and correct other potential hazards or else face fire code citations that could result in fines and abatement.

After the meeting, firefighters traveled up Starlight Crest Drive to point out an area where hillside homeowners had properly scaled back vegetation to slow or prevent flames from climbing out of a wooded canyon toward their homes.

In addition to enforcing requirements for carving out such “defensible spaces,” firefighters offer free voluntary consultations for those who wish to further fireproof their homes by sealing off areas such as gaps in garage doors, open eaves and attic vents — “any place that might be susceptible to the intrusion of embers that roll with the wind,” said Niccum.

Following at least basic safety protocols, said Firefighter Specialist Jerry Wolak of Station 82, could make all the difference in whether firefighters can successfully save a threatened home.

“We’ll look at a home that’s covered with tree branches hanging into the eaves and cypresses that may appear green but are dead inside, and then a home that has [brush] clearance. We do everything we can to save every home, but we would most likely choose to defend the one that has clearance both for safety and because we know it’s a place where we can make a stand,” said Wolak.

Spence said that La Cañada Flintridge residents have increasingly embraced wildfire prevention controls since the devastating August 2009 Station fire, which burned 160,000 acres of Angeles National Forest land and claimed the lives of L.A. County Fire Capt. Ted Hall and Engineer Arnie Quinones.

“When you have wildfire like that, I think it brings a significant amount of awareness. You would be surprised at how many people call City Hall or an individual member to say they’re really concerned about a neighbor and [asking] how to get the fire department to come out and inspect,” said Spence.

In the nearly two years since the Station fire, city officials have adopted additional requirements for homebuilders, such as covering eaves and installing indoor sprinkler systems, and increased parking restrictions in hilly, fire-prone neighborhoods.

“All of these things we’ve tried to do as policymakers should bring a greater awareness to how important it really is to protect your home,” the mayor said.

And while the Station fire may have burned away some of the threat to hillside homeowners, continued vigilance there and in neighborhoods on the city’s south side remains a top concern of the department, said Niccum.

In the end, Ready! Set! Go! fire prevention protocols and calls for evacuation preparedness aren’t just about saving homes, Station 82 Fire Capt. Michael McCormick pointed out.

“We need to make sure we are in a safe position before we engage, and that’s critical for our survival. None of us want to attend any more funerals,” he said.

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