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New Fire Safe Council set up to protect West Contra Costa, but residents must register

on December 19, 2022

A recently formed nonprofit and new technologies are in place to help Contra Costa County respond to fires more quickly and effectively. But the effort won’t work without the public’s help. 

Earlier this year, the West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council formed to protect the area against wildfires. It is led by four officers and an advisory board, which includes multiple fire departments as well as various park and recreation districts, PG&E and fire safety councils from neighboring counties. 

“One of our long-term goals is that if a public disaster happens, we don’t look back and say we wish we would have done that,” says Soheila Bana, Fire Safe Council president and newly elected member of the Richmond City Council. 

Bana says the key to a better fire response lies in both prevention and preparation. Dead vegetation and ambers create hazards that can fuel fires. Current Fire Safe Council projects include vegetation management and fuel reduction, as well as building better emergency evacuation routes between El Sobrante and Pinole and in Richmond’s Hilltop community.

The council also created a fire hazard map and works with Zonehaven, a company that helps communities and first responders better prepare for evacuations. Under the hazard map, the area is divided into zones. In case of an evacuation, fire departments and law enforcement can use a Community Warning System to alert people living in the zones of evacuations. However, for the system to reach its full potential, people must do their part. 

“People need to know what zone they are in and must register for the CWS,” Bana says. 

Online registration via only takes a few minutes, and evacuation zones are on Zonehaven’s website. To create awareness and encourage people to subscribe, the Fire Safe Council recently sent information cards to every homeowner along with their property tax bill. The council also has a growing mailing list of people in Richmond, El Sobrante, Pinole and Hercules and uses social media platforms such as NextDoor. Bana says the outreach and awareness need to improve. 

“We had our first evacuation drill in May in Richmond. It was very good because the fire and police departments learned how to better work together. But not many people who live in Richmond participated,” she says.

Screenshot of ALERTCalifornia’s camera dashboard. (Jule Hermann)

Angel Montoya, Richmond’s fire chief and the Fire Safe Council’s liaison officer, says regular evacuation drills are necessary to establish standardized communication and coordination with agencies and the community. In an evacuation, everyone needs to know what to expect, what routes to use and where to go. The drills also give agencies like the fire and police departments helpful insights into communities. 

“There’s a lot of intimate details that we’re not aware of because we respond to that area but we don’t live there. And that’s where we get that feedback,” Montoya says. “So that education upfront, that collaboration, that’s important.”

New technologies such as ALERTCalifornia’s camera monitoring system have the potential to improve fire response. Nora Cooper is the Operations Center supervisor for ALERTCalifornia, an organization based at UC San Diego that uses artificial intelligence to monitor more than 1,000 cameras for early fire detection across the state. She left a career in teaching after waking up in Oakland in 2020 to eerie orange skies and clouds of ash and smoke so thick no sunlight could pass through them. 

“I was trying to navigate how to deal with that climate anxiety and how to really make a difference in my former students’ future lives,” she says, of her decision to change careers. 

The camera network has grown steadily over the past few years. The system recently picked up a fire from 50 miles away, Cooper says. But the long-term goal is to have a camera installed every 10 miles.

Nobody knows the value of effective and quick decision-making better than firefighters. Michael Wilson, director of development at ALERTCalifornia, is a retired fire chief and has watched California wildfires become more dangerous over the years. 

“In 1985, when I started my career, fires were not burning at the level they’re burning today. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing today is based on extreme climate and drought,” he says. 

As California becomes dryer and dryer, more fuel is generated, which causes fires to not only burn hotter but also much faster. Wilson witnessed the change when he was on one of the first fire engines that responded to the Boles fire in Siskiyou County in 2014. In the town of Weed, fire was spreading to houses before firefighters could reach them.

“They were igniting faster than we could drive the engine to get to the next location,” Wilson says. “So when fire outdrives human technology and human ability for mobilization, it becomes, you know, a very mind-boggling and devastating challenge for folks to deal with.”

With ALERTCalifornia’s technology, Wilson and Cooper hope first responders will be able to react quicker and more effectively. The accuracy and visual enhancement the cameras provide could lead to better management of resources and equipment.

Contra Costa County has installed around 20 cameras. Bana says at least two more cameras are needed to cover the area of Wildcat Canyon in particular because of the threat that power lines pose there. 

“We have a line of very high voltage PG&E lines going through East Bay regional parks, a very densely wooded area,” she says. 

What you can do

The Fire Safe Council is trying to secure funding to expand the network. But new technology and time management can only do so much. Another important component is home hardening, where homeowners make their properties more resistant to fire. 

The Fire Safe Council started a FireWise campaign in May to bring communities together for better fire safety. The neighborhood makes a group effort to reduce fuel in their front and back yards. In return, they can receive reimbursements of up to $2,000 through Measure X, countywide half-cent sales tax, for their home-hardening efforts. 

Reimbursements are a necessary incentive for homeowners. Typical home hardening includes costly measures such as replacing wooden roofs, siding and decks with more fire-resistant materials such as cement, brick or steel. Additionally, propane tanks and firewood stacks should be kept at least 30 feet from the house. Another more easily achievable task is to regularly clean rain gutters, since they can trap flying ambers.

Many of these tasks require a group of people to work together. This is why the minimum requirement for participation is eight households per neighborhood. So far, one community group is engaged in the campaign and three more are ready to go, Bana says. 

“It’s not just our houses and our livelihood, it’s our lives that are in danger in case of a wildfire, and wildfires are just increasing in frequency in California. So we need to do our best,” Bana says. 

Montoya says some fire safety measures will be implemented before the next fire season starts in late spring. One is putting up signs indicating areas with severe fire hazards.

Next year, the Fire Safe Council also plans to hold more fire drills and broaden its outreach.

“We have a road map now that is complete,” Montoya says. “Before next fire season, we’ll be able to navigate not only fuel mitigation, but fire safety, education, collaboration and communication.”

Top photo: Firefighters clear vegetation that can fuel wildfires (courtesy of West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council)

STORY AND VIDEO — Firefighters hard to recruit in Contra Costa: ‘It’s a stressful business and that is the nature of it.’

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