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Richmond deputy fire chief Emon Usher surveys the remnants of a fire that engulfed about 40 salvaged cars at Deal Auto Wrecking on Gertrude Avenue in North Richmond this morning. Photo by Catherine Schuknecht.

From sparks to flames: Richmond’s first fire prevention plan

on October 4, 2019

The ‘welcome’ mat at the front door. Yesterday’s newspaper sitting at the edge of the gate. Wood shavings strewn over the driveway. Pine tree needles deep in gutters and roofs. Flammable liquids in aerosol cans. All these common household materials are fodder for embers – one of the leading causes behind the spread of wildfires.

“There’ll be a spot fire here and there, and then that little spot fire starts growing and growing. Now your home is burning from the outside,” Richmond Fire Marshal Eric Govan said, describing how embers from small fires can travel almost 2 miles and latch onto anything remotely combustible. 

The Richmond Fire Department convened with Diablo Fire Safe Council and Contra Costa County Fire to pore over an initial draft of the Richmond Community Wildfire Protection Plan (RCWPP), led by Marshal Govan and Diablo’s Cheryl Miller. This plan is vital at this point in time as Richmond currently has no fire-prevention measures in place, with calling 911 being the only option.

California is still reeling from the lethal and costly wildfires that savaged towns like Paradise. Now that hot days and dry brush on hillsides mark the return of wildfire season, governments are taking action at the local and state level. Richmond’s meeting on Wednesday came as California Governor Gavin Newsom signed 22 wildfire bills.

Roughly 60 pages thick, Richmond’s fire plan booklet details hazards and risks in the urban region, recommended action plans, hazardous fuel management, structure ignitability and sustaining the plan. The highlight of the draft is four priority actions aimed at implementing a continuous consciousness around fire safety: fire prevention education programs, evacuation planning and preparedness, defensible space programs and home hardening (suggestions to retrofit already existing homes to minimize fire-related damages). 

‘Action Points’ from the initial draft of the RCWPP

Proposing a five-year cycle to accomplish the four goals, the team stressed the value of education around wildfires–an inexpensive tool vital to preventing and curtailing fires. “Supporting year-round community efforts of education regarding both wildfires, safety, mission prevention,” said Miller. He added, “they should be inexpensive enough, including inexpensive things that homeowners, businesses, owners, contractors, can do.” 

Education is critical to the RCWPP’s success as a lot of the efforts put forward by the fire department rely heavily on local and national grants, which can be sparse and mistimed. Promoting awareness around possible hazardous items and cultivating a culture of the cleanup in citizens is likely to result in the sustainability of the plan, the officials said. 

“A lot of it is educating homeowners to be mindful,” Govan said. “So, if you’re in certain areas, you shouldn’t do certain things, or if you do or if you see something, this is how you can potentially mitigate it or at least notify someone else so that someone we can mitigate it.”

Located in California, the top-ranked state for high to extreme wildfire risk, Richmond is highly vulnerable to a breakout of blazes.  The area’s ecological makeup – lack of rain, abundant flammable vegetation, steep topography – contribute to an environment that is conducive to fires. There’s also the added pressure of population growth, dense patterns of urbanization and buildings made with flammable materials. 

A big problem of the already increased risk of wildfires is human activity. “Many of these large fires that you’re seeing in Southern California and impacting the areas where people are living are human-caused,” Nina S. Oakley at the Desert Research Institute told the New York Times.

Arson aside, mindless actions may create sparks, and with the environment getting drier, there’s no way to predict what an ember can do. 

Marshal Govan reiterated the unforeseeable nature of fires. He stressed the importance of routine checks, enforcing inspections, and encouraging the community to join community-based fire prevention programs such as ‘Ready, Set, Go’ and Firewise. “I don’t want to be reactionary. I want to be preventative,” he concluded. 

Richmond’s Fire Department obtained a California Fire Foundation grant to team with Diablo to work on the RCWPP. Set for public review from November 1 to December 1, the Plan will be presented to adopting bodies after December 9, and brought to the city council for a final vote.   

Citizens can find more information on Richmond’s City Council website, and some fire-prevention tips here

This story has been updated to provide a correct photo of the Richmond, CA fire department.

1 Comment

  1. John on October 4, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    FYI: I think the picture at the beginning of the article is of the Richmond, Texas fire department.

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