Amid dry autumn, officials suggest safety measures
As of press time for this issue, both the Reno Fire Department and the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District had personnel and firefighting equipment working on California’s huge Woolsey and Camp fires. people across the Truckee Meadows were gathering emergencies supplies, toiletries, clothes and food to send to those who, by the tens of thousands, have lost their homes—among them, two employees of the RN&R’s sister paper, the Chico News & Review.
Firefighters from the RFD and TMFPD are sent in two- to three-week rotations to assist out-of-state crews. Depending on how the fire fight proceeds, those currently in California may not return home until after Thanksgiving. As the community here settles into autumn, officials from both agencies are stressing the need to be aware of fire hazards associated with the holidays and cool weather.
“Thanksgiving is the number-one day for cooking fires,” said Reno Fire Marshal Tray Palmer.
Fires result when people walk away from the food they’re cooking or—worse—attempt to deep-fry unthawed turkeys, which can lead to explosions. And when holiday decorations come out, they come with extensions cords and strings of tangled lights. TMFPD Deputy Chief of Prevention Lisa Beaver advises against accidentally turning your home into a décor-laden obstacle course for visitors.
“Remember they’re unfamiliar with that environment,” Beaver said. “You want to make sure you let them know what to do in case there’s an emergency in your home. … There’s a lot of communication that should be happening with people coming to visit you.”
It’s more than just Christmas lights that should be plugged in with care, Beaver said.
“People will plug an electrical space heater into a power strip that you would normally plug your computer into, or something like that,” she said. “The problem is that an electric space heater works on about 1200 watts, and those strips are not designed for that much wattage. … They will overload that circuit, and they will begin to arc and spark.”
Beaver said she responds to an average of 14 or 15 fires each year caused by space heaters plugged into power strips.
“Plug them directly into the wall,” she said.
Other heating sources can also be fire hazards. Within the Reno City Limits, Palmer said, gas burning heaters are a big concern.
“Any gas burning appliance, especially a portable gas burning appliance, you are not supposed to use inside,” he said. “You have an open flame that could ignite something easily that’s next to it. The other big concern is carbon monoxide. It will kill you, and you can’t smell it, and you can’t taste it. It’ll just make you sleepy until you’re dead.”
It can be an especially big problem in the city’s poorer areas, he said.
“I’ve seen people who not only use kerosene, but also little camping stoves, little butane stoves, those kind of things to keep warm,” Palmer said. “Just to highlight, we did have an incident just about a week ago, in a downtown hotel on Fourth Street, where a butane stove was being used and the tank exploded, and it blew out the entire room.”
Palmer said the room’s occupant “miraculously” only sustained minor injuries, but the explosion “pushed out all of the walls, broke the ceilings and the window glass and the cars that were right next to it.”
“Even a little, tiny butane tank—most people don’t think of it as being very volatile—but that little butane tank exploded and blew out the entire room,” he said.
Fire officials from both agencies advise people with fireplaces in their homes to make sure they’re properly inspected for masonry cracks and materials that often build up in fireplace flues, like creosote and pitch. TMFPD is preparing a campaign to give out free “ash cans” to those with fireplaces, to encourage people to avoid putting ash in combustible containers like paper bags. Palmer said furnaces should also receive an annual inspection.
On the defense
Those who’ve followed news coverage of the California fires and interviews with the professionals fighting them have been exposed to some firefighting lingo with which they may not be familiar. One phrase that comes up often is “wildland urban interface.” According to Palmer, it refers, basically, to areas where human development meets unoccupied, undeveloped land—and, for the City of Reno, most of it lies near the official jurisdiction borders. For TMFPD, which serves unincorporated Washoe County, the majority of its 1,000-mile jurisdiction lies within the wildland urban interface.
Beaver explained that wildland urban interface areas can fall within several classifications, from moderate to extreme. People can see where their homes fall on this scale by using maps available on the Washoe County website (washoecounty.us/gis). Where a property falls on the scale can be used to determine how much “defensible space”—space without brush and combustible materials—needs to be maintained between a building and the surrounding wildland. But according to fire officials from both agencies, the first several feet surrounding a home or building are always the most crucial to keep clear of combustibles.
According to RFD Battalion Chief Mark Winkelman, when a swath of the Caughlin Ranch neighborhood burned in November 2011, it was largely due to a lack of defensible space around homes—and one type of plant in particular that the department wants homeowners to get rid of.
“I’ll tell you from experience, Winkleman said. “After investigating the houses after the Caughlin Fire—the majority of the houses that burned, even the stucco houses, had junipers right up against the exterior walls.”
It’s part of the reason the RFD has a campaign it calls “Junk the Junipers.”
“We’re trying to get people to pull out super fire-reactive juniper plants and replace them with less reactive things,” Winkleman said. “But we know, culturally, the reason you live in these places and the reason you build up these kinds of vegetation is that you like how it looks. … It’s hard to convince people to do a lot of this, and so they take a lot of this risk on themselves when they don’t.”
At the TMFPD, Beaver said a defensible space educational pilot program was recently saved from the chopping block and made permanent.
“If anyone out there would like to have us come out and walk their property and give them feedback and do a defensible space inspection for them, we are available to do that,” she said. “It’s no regulatory thing. … It’s just to help people.”
For those looking to create defensible space around homes and buildings by removing brush, it’s important to note that it can’t be piled up and burned onsite—at least not this year. Most years, TMFPD permits open burning of green waste—brush, trees and plants—for a short period during the fall and spring. According to TMFPD Chief Charles Moore, this fall is just too dry to allow it.
Earlier this month, TMFPD held green waste collection at two of its respective stations, one in the North Valleys and another in Washoe Valley. Residents dropped off thousands of truckloads of green waste, which the agency is working in conjunction with Full Circle Soils & Compost in Carson City to turn into compost.
According to Adam Mayberry, TMFPD public information officer, the agency will hold more green waste collection days, though perhaps not until spring. In the meantime, residents who need to clear defensible space are encouraged to do so and get rid of their green waste through Waste Management, either at the curb or the landfill.