You Say That Every Year! Overcoming Public Doubts about the Fire Season

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Wildland fire season - LexipolThis will be the worst fire season ever!

As fire officials, we preach this message every year. What do we hear back?

“You say that every year!”

Well, not every year. But when we say it, we really mean it. Still, it’s easy to understand how the average person starts to tune out these messages. After all, catastrophic fires rarely hit the same communities year after year; for most people, evacuating for a wildland fire is a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime occurrence—if that. And every year that goes by without a devastating fire adds to the false sense of security for those living in wildland fire-prone areas.

So how can you convey the dangers of the impending wildland fire season in a way that commands the public’s attention and gets them to believe what you say?

Here’s a simple, illustrative way to explain it:

Take a 5-gallon can of gasoline and place it in your garage this year. Do it again next year. Every year your garage doesn’t burn, add another 5-gallon can of gasoline. After 5–10 years, you’ll have 25–50 gallons of gasoline in the garage. Although you’ve escaped those years without experiencing a fire, when one comes, it will be much worse than it was before you started to store the gasoline. It will burn with tremendous heat, spread at a rapid rate and move quickly out of control, threatening any exposures nearby.

The same happens with the fuels (vegetation) in our hillsides. Every year an area does not burn, more fuels grow. Eventually the hills will burn—and now the fuel load is extremely full, explosive even. Under these conditions, fire will burn with intensity and spread rapidly—just like if you stored additional fuel (gasoline) in your garage each year.

The public often point to rainy winters and relief from drought conditions as a reason not to fear wildland fires in the summer. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Winter rains can double and triple the fuels on hillsides. As the rain ebbs, the heat picks up and the winds start, all that green vegetation quickly turns to fuel.

Case in point: As I write this, several large-scale fires are spreading rapidly in Southern California due to heavy fire loads and warm, dry conditions. These fires are burning out of control, consuming thousands of acres within short timeframes and requiring firefighting resources from out of state.

And all of this is happening long before Santa Ana fire season. We all know what can happen when those strong, dry winds hit.

Will this year be the worst fire season ever? Hopefully not, but as fire service leaders, we have a responsibility to plan as if it will be. So get out in front of your community with consistency and when you say it, mean it! This will be our worst fire season ever!

Is your community ready? Visit http://www.readyforwildfire.org/ to learn more about how you can help residents prepare.

Sam DiGiovanna

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.

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