Fire Safe Council formed in Mayacamas
Grassroots organization aims to get mountain community ready for the new normal
Neither Kristen Drummond nor Lisa Warner sleep well during red flag warnings, and they didn’t even before last October’s wildfires. Knowing they live in an area prone to wildfires, at the top of Trinity and Cavedale roads, both of them were awake and watching when an orange glow became visible on the valley floor that night – although the orange glow Warner saw was coming from Napa Valley and the orange glow Drummond saw was in Sonoma Valley. Drummond and her family put their evacuation plan in action – to escape south to Schellville – but with little information about where the fire was and where the safe evacuation routes were, the Drummonds hit a wall of flames at the bottom of Trinity Road, just barely getting through.
Both Warner’s and Drummond’s homes survived, but they were extremely lucky. The fire burned 98 percent of the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department’s coverage area, running over 7,200 acres of steep, rocky terrain high in the Mayacamas mountains near the Napa County line. A total of 48 homes were lost, about one in three.
Through community education and engagement, and mitigation projections like brush clearing and fire breaks, Drummond and Warner hope the council can help minimize future wildfire damage in their area.
“The MVFD has been advocating for a Fire Safe Council for the 10 years I’ve served on the board, and we’re grateful to the residents who have dedicated their time to make it a reality,” said Allison Ash, president of the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department’s board of directors and Cavedale Road resident. “Their work will make a huge impact on the fire resiliency of our community.” The MFSC is a committee of the MVFD.
The council’s five-person Board of Directors is currently working on their first five-year Community Wildfire Protection Plan, one of the necessary steps to enable them to seek grants from various state and federal sources. The council hopes the plan will receive approval from the Board of Supervisors in January 2019. Already, however, the MFSC has received a grant from Cal Fire for a community education campaign about defensible space and towards the development of a fire tactical map that will identify local water sources, evacuation routes, and turnaround points for fire crews.
“The Fire Department is about protection,” said Warner. “In contrast, the fire safe council is about teaching people to take responsibility for themselves and educating them about how to take responsibility. And at the end of the day we are responsible for ourselves.”
Warner said the most surprising thing she’s learned is that one of the best ways to help the community is to get to know each other – and go out of our way to do so. “We have to become a little more self sufficient when it comes to those kinds of things,” she said. “We have an aging community, some with disabilities. One of our goals is to get to know our at-risk neighbors in need.” The council hopes to develop a community phone tree and develop a Trinity/Cavedale safety zone and turnaround place for when those narrow roads become blocked.
“These guys are obviously very motivated,” said Stephen Gort, “they’ve got a good leader, and they’ve been in sprint mode from the beginning. I think they’ll do a good job and really make a positive influence once they get the projects rolling. They’ll be very successful.” Gort is executive director of the nonprofit California Fire Safe Council, whose mission is to mobilize the formation of fire safe councils across the state. Over the last decade, federal funding for the formation of new fire safe councils has been dwindling, but last year, insurance giant State Farm stepped in with significant support to reinvigorate the formation efforts.
After formation, however, the success of the fire safe council depends greatly on the community’s commitment. Grants will go towards education – especially about defensible space, where to evacuate or where to shelter in place – and mitigation, but some of the projects will require permission from private landowners.
Gort said that in his experience, once a council is formed, many in the community begin to see it as a necessary undertaking. Before taking his current position, Gort, who lives in the Berryessa Highlands, helped 10 fire safe councils form in Napa County, including the Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council.
MFSC has relied heavily on the expertise of neighboring Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council, almost 15 years old. Since they share responsibility for two sides of the same mountain, the Mt. Veeder council and MFSC are partnering on two fuel break projects on the ridgeline, paid for by grant funding from Cal Fire.
Drummond said the area has already had three close calls this year – two car fires and an accident where a pizza oven tipped over.
“My anxiety is greater since the fire, but being a part of something like this has helped channel the fear, a way to deal with it,” said Drummond. Her husband has become a volunteer with the MVFD. “I hope this will lead us closer to becoming a fire safe community,” said Drummond, a step which could help homeowners keep access to fire insurance, she added.
“I know I don’t have control over it, because I don’t,” said Warner, “but this way I’m participating, I can take responsibility for my surroundings.” The fire safe council is a way to combat that “utter feeling of helplessness” she felt during the fire, she added.
“The silver lining is I get to know an amazing group of people. Residents might be part time, full time, a winery owner, or a working mom, but the one thing we have in common is that we live here,” said Warner.
To find out more or to get involved, visit www.mayacamasfiresafecouncil.org.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.