Almost every Californian has a fire story: a hasty evacuation, the tragedy of a lost home, a nasty bout of bronchitis, or the memory of smoke looming over a community nearby. Mountains that glow orange and skies where smoke replaces clouds have become part of the annual landscape and something Californians have come to expect like New Orleanians and flooded streets or Alaskans and months of darkness during the winter. And as with any recurring natural phenomenon, preparation is key.
San Dimas resident Eddie Resendez walked outside of his home on the morning of Sept. 9, 2020 to ash falling from the sky like snow. His vehicle, parked in the driveway, was covered with a layer of ash and soot, the water in his pool had turned black and the air outside was thick with smoke. Resendez said his daughter found a leaf in the yard that was charred and crisp, like it had traveled all the way from the Bobcat Fire to his yard near the corner of Cypress Street and Lone Hill Avenue.
Resendez’s wife and their nine-year-old son both suffer from bouts of asthma. “We kept our son inside,” Resendez said, “for days, to keep him safe from inhaling any of that air.”
Resendez said they had his son’s nebulizer (a device that turns liquid medicine into a mist to help treat asthma) on stand-by. He also replaced their home’s air filter earlier than he normally would just out of precaution.
San Dimas, a city whose northern border kisses the San Gabriel Mountains, is one of many cities across California that can be categorized as a wildland urban interface area. According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department website, climate change has caused wildfires to increase in number, and California’s fire season is now year-round. Of the 20 largest fires in California’s history, five of them sparked in 2020.
Most recently, San Dimas had been sandwiched between the Ranch 2 Fire and the Bobcat Fire to its west and the El Dorado fire to the east. While residents of San Dimas were not mandated to evacuate their homes due to these fires, San Dimas Canyon Natural Area was closed due to poor air quality.
Smoke from wildfires contain numerous pollutants including ozone, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter, all of which impact health negatively. Stinging eyes, scratchy throat, shortness of breath, headache and fatigue are among the symptoms of breathing in poor quality air.
According to South Coast Air Quality Management District, San Dimas air quality over the last month has ranged between “moderate” which can be considered acceptable, “unhealthy for sensitive groups” which advises people with lung conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis to stay inside, “unhealthy” which causes even healthy individuals to suffer negative respiratory effects, and “very unhealthy” which causes widespread effects among the general population.
Inspector Sean Ferguson, the Public Information Officer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, recommends when homeowners become aware of a fire that’s heading toward their city they should prepare. If your house is near a wild land area, and a fire is spreading along that wildland, the fire will do what fires do: burn.
“What you want to do is decrease that continuity of fuels,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson recommends trimming grasses down below a couple of inches and removing any dead branches or overhang from your home.
“Many people don’t think of this, but patio furniture is highly flammable–all the synthetic materials that are involved in seat cushions, patio furniture, etc. If you get an errant ember, they are highly susceptible to rapid fire growth and if up against your home, you’re going to have definite problems.”
Ferguson suggests, whenever it’s possible, to move patio furniture away from your home or, on your way out, put it in the garage. He also recommends removing any sort of flammable material away from your home.
Californians have seen their neighbors guarding their homes with a garden hose; some have even been that hose-wielding homeowner themselves. If an evacuation order has been issued Ferguson advises against staying behind, even when that “fight” instinct kicks in.
“It’s incumbent on members of the public to heed that evacuation order and get out as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.
One way to ensure you can evacuate swiftly is to prepare important documents, prescription medication, computer equipment, family photos and heirlooms, baby food and pets ahead of time so when it’s time to make a move, no one is scrambling.
Whether wildfires are ignited by a freak lightning storm or the careless use of a pyrotechnic device, Californians need to be aware now, more than ever, just how susceptible the state is with its combined weather–hot, dry and notorious for high-speed Santa Ana winds–and fuel–made of forest floors and suburban communities.
“It’s all about being cognizant of your actions, being cognizant of the current weather state, of the fuels around us, and being cognizant that we live in Southern California with one of the largest urban-wildland interface areas in the nation.”
To access more information on how to prepare for wildfires visit https://fire.lacounty.gov/rsg/ and download the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s “Ready, Set, Go” PDF.