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Fire FAQ: How To Understand What You Hear About Wildfires

AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

Napa County firefighter Jason Sheumann sprays water on a home as he battles flames from a wildfire Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Napa, Calif.

AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

The official peak of wildfire season is October, and with that come more questions about how to understand all the information about the fast-changing fires.

We’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions concerning the wildfires and wildfire season.

Our questions are answered by CapRadio’s Managing Editor, Linnea Edmeier. Edmeier’s experience includes 17 years with CAL FIRE. As a fire captain, she directed fireground operations, trained and supervised crewmembers for fire suppression, medical emergencies, hazard material and rescue incidents, among many responsibilities.

1. When officials say a fire has burned 1,000 acres, what does that actually mean?

When a fire starts, there is limited, verified information available. Officials may give the fire size as 1,000 acres, but that is usually an approximation. The next day they may say that the fire burned only 500 acres. The fire didn’t get smaller, it was simply mapped more accurately sometimes with mapping technology from the air.

2. What does it mean when a fire is “contained” or “controlled?”

When a fire is contained, it means there is a boundary or “control line” around the fire and any spot fires. This does not mean that the fire is out, but that it’s surrounded by hoselines, hand lines, or dozer lines that will keep it from progressing forward. The fire could still be burning within the containment lines, but it’s not expected to grow in size.

When you hear a fire is “controlled,” it means the fire is what many of us would call “out.” Hot spots inside the line are cooled, the control line or “black” line is complete around the fire and controls lines are expected to hold.

3. What’s the difference between an evacuation order and an evacuation warning? We’ve also seen immediate evacuation orders. Why are there so many terms for evacuations?

A voluntary evacuation, also known as an evacuation warning, means that there is a threat present, and residents have the choice to leave before the threat is imminent.

A mandatory evacuation means the threat is imminent.

A lot of the terms that are used tend to be interchangeable, but the biggest and most commonly used terms are voluntary and involuntary evacuations.

It’s best to keep in mind that during significant wind events, evacuation needs may happen in a matter of minutes with no formal warning, no time to prepare. I have something of a motto when it comes to fire evacuations: knowledge, go-bag, escape route.

Become familiar with fire weather forecasts and maps. If you are in an area forecast for a wind event, be certain to have a bag packed and know at least two escape routes. A mass of people leaving an area on fire will be chaotic and overwhelming, and your best way out may be different than your usual route.

4. How is an evacuation order carried out?

Evacuation orders are carried out differently depending on the county and circumstance. Some counties have alerts that go out by phone to residents in the area. Law enforcement may also go door to door advising people to leave. During emergency situations, when fire is threatening multiple locations, law enforcement may simply drive into neighborhoods and make the announcement over their loudspeaker. During fast moving fires or fires at night, it’s possible you may not hear or receive word through formal channels. Many people are alive because they were alerted by neighbors pounding on their doors.

5. What items are most important for people to take when being evacuated?

Your go-bag should include necessary medications, identification, cash and important legal documents. Consider the essentials you will need if you need to be away from home for at least three days. A battery-operated radio and hand crank radio that can power my phone is an essential I have in my bag, in my office and at home.

Your pets will need a secure place to sleep, so kennels and leashes should also be handy. Photos are the number one thing people miss when they lose their homes. Consider digitizing your photos before fires hit.

6. What makes an area more prone to wildfires?

Weather, more precisely the wind, is a major factor for fire in California. Not only does the wind push fire and cause it to spread rapidly, it can also contribute to sparking a fire, think downed power lines. Other factors, like topography, building materials and density also play a part. When we think of homes in wooded areas being vulnerable to fire, we also need to remember that homes are fuel. The building materials and contents are all fuel, just like the vegetation.

7. What is the best way for one to protect their home from a wildfire?

Providing defensible space and building your home to be as fire resistant and fire ready as possible serves two purposes: you give fire less material to ignite and you provide access for fire crews. Not sure exactly what to do or if egress is big enough for fire equipment? Invite your local fire crew out to do an inspection.

8. What should people do when returning home after an evacuation order?

Before you can be let back into your home, you will be asked for identification, so be sure to have that on you at all times. There is nothing official that you have to do when returning home, but you should assess your property. Gas and water may have been turned off, so check that all utilities are working. You should also look around your house for any opportunities to make it safer for the next time.

9. How does a wet winter affect fire season?

It depends. There is a cycle to every fire season. The grasses dry out first in about April or May here in Northern California, then the brush, then timber. By late July, early August we will enter our lightening season in the timber. By September and October fuel models are at their driest, which combines with the North Wind pattern to give us some of California’s deadliest and costliest fires. A wetter than average winter can affect the cycle by creating more grasses or providing more water to brush and timber over more months.

Something that is important to remember is that there are many factors when it comes to wildfires. Many questions will not have clear-cut answers, because there are variables like landscape and weather.

 wildfireswild fireCalifornia wildfire

Linnea Edmeier

Managing Editor for News and Information

As Managing Editor for News and Information, Linnea Edmeier oversees and coordinates the creation of News content, including Capital Public Radio News, Insight with Beth Ruyak, Capital Public Radio Network (CPRN) and The View From Here.  Read Full Bio 

Hilda Toribio Flores

Web Producer

Hilda Flores is a Web Producer for Cap Radio. Before Cap Radio, Hilda attended Stanislaus State, where she worked at the college radio station, KCSS. Hilda was also a reporter and editor for her college newspaper, The Signal.   Read Full Bio 

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