Commentary: Is Atascadero prepared?

Is Atascadero prepared for serious emergencies which are eventually bound to strike us? Several recent events prompted me to think about this. Uppermost are the ferocious wildfires that ravaged many parts of California in the last two years, causing loss of life and huge property destruction. Additionally, with my friend meteorologist John Lindsey, we recently gave a presentation on “weather extremes and weather preparedness.” Finally, the last few weeks saw reports from large groups of scientists describing current and projected hazards of a warming world, the two most recent being the 4th National Climate Assessment produced by 13 Federal agencies, and the independent 4th California Climate Assessment, produced by the state of California.

This isn’t the occasion to again debate the correctness of these scientific reports; you are free to accept or ignore them. But what they say that is most relevant to Atascadero is that with increasing air temperatures, more frequent droughts and low humidity, tree die-offs and more precipitation in the form of rain than snow, we can expect wildfires to be more frequent and more severe. The danger they pose is exacerbated by continued encroachment of urban areas into fire-prone wildlands. 

To some extent this danger can be mitigated by better wildland management: the California report recommends specific steps for doing this. Nevertheless, although Atascadero has been spared such a fire disaster — though the near-miss “Highway 41” fire of 1994 consumed 49,000 acres — it behooves all Atascadero citizens to put aside ideological and political differences and ask whether Atascadero is well prepared to deal with a severe wildfire.

Some have advocated that we “cut down all our trees”, but amidst the destruction of Paradise, there are many green trees standing. This is a frequent situation. Wildfire expert Jack Cohen points out that houses are generally ignited by flaming embers lighting on flammable roofs. He recommends the following steps: Thin and space trees between 30-100 feet from a house. Between 30 and 5 feet have appropriate landscape so the ground fire weakens. Within 5 feet, use rock beds and irrigated fire-resistant ground cover. Use non-flammable roof material and have protection for eves, gutters, vents and porches from flying embers.

But often, even 10 feet from a house takes one into a neighbor’s property. Whether this means mandating more aggressive tree and brush clearing, and reevaluation of building codes for new and existing structures, is something the new council should consider, availing themselves with input from our local fire department but also from people like Jack Cohen. Another wildfire expert, Max Moritz, suggests that governments must be more aggressive in not allowing development in areas especially vulnerable to wildfire.

In this “new reality” though, despite such precautions, with ferocious Santa Ana winds blowing a forest fire into a firestorm, throwing burning embers a mile ahead of itself, citizens in portions of Atascadero may find themselves with a sudden threat from a serious fire on a scale that is beyond our local fire department’s capability to deal with it, and evacuation is the only prudent alternative.

But evacuation how and to where? In Paradise, we saw the tragic situation of lines of burnt out cars, trapped on the clogged roads, their owners having fled or been consumed. Instead, we should have well-defined local fire refuges, as the Australians have done, with every household being informed of their nearest refuge and the route to it.

But there are other preparedness steps every family should take now, not minutes before, a calamity strikes and not just for fire events. Here are some suggested by John Lindsey and myself: Have portable radios and flashlights, with either fresh batteries or solar powered, regularly charged. Have vital and precious family and personal documents in fire-proof boxes ready to take in case you evacuate. Identify neighbors who are physically unable to evacuate by themselves. Can the city and our fire and police departments help compile such a list? If you receive a warning or evacuation order take it seriously. Loss of electricity and phone service is a likely outcome of a major disaster. Keep cell phones charged and a portable charger on hand. Freeze plastic containers with water so ice placed in your refrigerator/freezer prevents food spoilage.  Don’t let your car get too low on gas; remember it will have a radio and cell phone charger and possibly internet connection.  It should have an emergency kit in it.

Finally, I urge our new City Council to hold a series of fire and other disaster workshops to help us all be prepared. As I said above, regardless of any ideological differences, this is one issue on which we all must unite.


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