Fire chief: Residents must embrace ‘fire environment’

Fire chief: Residents must embrace ‘fire environment’
Emergency vehicles responded to the Lilac Fire on Dec. 7 on roads flanked by burning palm trees. Photo by Jeff Hall/Cal Fire

Vista fire Chief Jeff Hahn shared important fire safety tips and information during a July 10 Vista Rotary Club meeting at the Shadowridge Golf Club. During his career as a firefighter, Hahn said, there historically used to be a fire season when vegetation would dry out becoming prone to catching fire.

Back in the day, there was more moisture with the rains, he said. Right around July, less moisture was in the environment, and then hot, windy weather would kick in. When coupled with a dry atmosphere, vegetation was in prime condition to burn.

Now, things have changed.

“What we’re seeing with the weather changes is what when we saw in December with the Lilac Fire,” Hahn said. “We’ve got dry, dead fuel that’s out there, and the weather conditions are consistently warmer, and dryer. With the drought, all of these things are piling up on us to where there is no fire season anymore.”

Hahn went on to talk about the hazards such as a spark from a catalytic converter or a chain being dragged behind a car or trailer. It’s that one spark that flies into the brush and explodes into a fire, he said.

Fire season in Southern California is year-round.

“If you live in Southern California, you have to have defensible space — this is a real issue,” Hahn said. “That’s the best thing that you can do to protect your home and your neighbor’s home.”

Without defensible residential space, there is a higher likelihood of fire burning through vegetation and reaching the home.

Hahn said he resides in San Diego County with acreage. While he has defensible space within 300 feet of his house, he also has no vegetation at all within 100 feet of his residence. 

“Having defensible space around your house is the absolutely minimum you can do,” he said, adding how beyond his defensible space he did fuel modification by removing about half of the fuel load.

Maintaining defensible space is ongoing every single year. Hahn also advised to remove and trees that are overhanging onto a house, take away dead branches and clean out dead leaves in the rain gutters.

Homeowners who don’t take care of these things, Hahn said, could potentially face a serious issue with the threat of a fast-moving fire.

“Imagine a hailstorm, but instead of ice, it’s fire — little embers are hitting your house, trees and bushes and falling into your gutters,” he said. “That threatens your house.”

Hahn said the recent blaze earlier this month in Alpine did have destroyed structures from direct flames, but for many homes, it was embers that destroyed them.

Hahn said people should think about what they are doing that could potentially start a fire. For example, if someone must use a chainsaw or lawnmower, do it in the cooler morning hours when there is less wind and more humidity from overnight.

There are also some great systems in place like Alert San Diego that San Diegans should register with, Hahn said. He added that his entire family is signed up. 

“We live in a fire environment, and we have to embrace that,” Hahn said. “If you do embrace this, plan for it and you maintain it, you can mitigate those risks significantly.”

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