Fire departments coping with Coronavirus crisis
A good time to work on prevention and mitigation for coming fire season
The rapid onset of the Coronavirus – designated COVID-19 – and consequent quarantines and shelter in place orders forced fire and emergency responders to look at almost every aspect of emergency responses to determine what’s best for everyone.
Rethinking responses“We obviously are not prepared for outbreaks like this,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said. “We are low on supplies like most people and are trying to get them in.”
The firehouse is closed to the public. There are no public events, activities, no ride-alongs, and everybody at the station maintains a six-foot separation whenever possible.
“We have stopped group training and drills, all external classes have been cancelled,” the chief continued. There’s no shortage of work, however. “I just pull out my list of things to do.”
Handling calls is a delicate balance between safety and need.
“We are trying to reduce our exposure,” Bellach said. “If someone has any symptoms, we put a mask on them as well as us, to reduce exposure.”
Do not go to the firehouse looking for supplies; there aren’t any there to give away, Bellach said. “If you have any questions, just call,” he said, “Just no face-to-face at the firehouse.”
The new Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD) that includes Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon and Mayacamas fire districts, is much the same.
“It’s a whole different world,” SVFD Chief Stephen Akre said. “There are a ton of things to think about.”
“Providing the community the highest level of service possible is the district’s top priority,” Akre continued. “What I feel is most impacted is our ability to provide that service,” he said, adding that the first move is to limit first responders’ exposure to COVID-19.
“If we start losing first responders’ time available to serve, it impacts our ability to send engines out.”
No firefighters or operational people have been affected yet, in any district.
“We have developed very tight personal protective equipment policies and dispatch policies to identify potential COVID patients,” Akre said.
Where a whole unit used to rush in on arrival to provide care, a minimum number of people are initially deployed on site to assess the situation. Another situation where an ambulance and a fire engine might be dispatched from and return to different stations – increasing exposure risks at both stations – was resolved with the addition of a new ambulance. Now both ambulance and engine return to the station from which they were dispatched.
“There’s lots of layers to this,” Akre said. “Everybody is really engaged and doing an exceptional job in planning and protecting.”
Time to get ready for fire seasonIf there’s anything positive to come out of staying at home, it is a singular opportunity to assess your home and property and work on vegetation management and a plan to better defend your home against future wildfires. Vegetation management guidelines can be found online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Fire-Prevention/Vegetation-Management-Services/.
“People should be using their stay at home time to work on defensive space, prior to any inspections,” Caerleon Safford said. “This is a great time to be working outside. We have a great opportunity to get ahead of stuff we put off to the last minute. Get that defensive space improved!”
Safford, a fire inspector with Sonoma County, has worked with Fire Safe Sonoma for many years. She wrote the county Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) adopted in 2016, and continues to help local communities develop their own CWPP documents. These are meaningful because once in place, they open the door to receiving state and federal grant money for both vegetation management and home hardening.
After the 2017 fires devastated so many homes, the county established an inspection program for properties in high fire risk areas and adopted a plan whereby local fire districts were tasked with inspecting various properties, writing reports, re-inspecting and determining if compliance has been reached.
A proposed sales tax – Measure G on the March Primary ballot – narrowly failed to achieve a two-thirds majority. It was designed to provide $51 million a year for fire services, including funding a corps of people to handle vegetation management.
Even had it passed, the money would not have shown up for a year, and given the current lack of business, may not have generated nearly the amounts expected when it was written. Meanwhile, the 2020 fire season moves ever closer in a year already marked by low rainfall and high temperatures.
Last year’s inspection results aren’t promising for the patchwork system in place.
“There are rules in place and we are just starting to look at enforcing them,” County Fire Marshal James Williams said. “There is nobody really out there to do it except local fire districts, who are ill equipped to do the inspections, write up reports, follow up and enforce.
“Last year’s results weren’t that encouraging.”
Last year’s inspections were divided between improved and unimproved properties. Of the 200 total parcels it was assigned to deal with, Kenwood Fire District’s first inspection covered 56 improved and 11 unimproved parcels, according to Williams’ records. All but two of the improved properties and all of the unimproved properties were in violation of the standards being applied.
There were no re-inspections in Kenwood.
“Due to the increased number of Red Flag Warning days and fires, we were unable to complete all the inspections,” Chief Bellach said.
While not all figures were in for Sonoma Valley Fire District, Williams did say that the first inspection covered 273 improved properties and 91 unimproved. There were 222 violations in improved and 72 in unimproved. After 22 follow up inspections, 55 of the improved properties remained in violation. Ten re-inspections of unimproved properties found them all remediated.
Keep in mind that the combined Sonoma Valley Fire District has four times the number of people to draw on to do these inspections.
“It took time to get where we are and will take time to address the issues,” Williams said regarding fire prevention. “It will take changing people’s hearts, minds, and the culture and their passions. Unfortunately, COVID is turning the world upside down.”
Williams and Safford both hope the county implements tougher standards for vegetation management and home hardening – the process of making roofs, siding, gutters, and other parts of a home less vulnerable to fire from embers and proximity.
“If they only clear out five feet between the house and vegetation, they will accomplish a lot,” Safford said.
Meanwhile, Chief Bellach says, “Call 9-1-1. We’ll be there.”