Emergencies: What do you do?
Like most Truckee-Tahoe residents, Kelly Doran watched with horror as the Angora Fire incinerated whole South Lake Tahoe neighborhoods in June. And just like countless other people, the West Shore homeowner hoped the tinder-dry fire season wouldn’t intrude on her life.
But hope stood little chance against the Washoe Fire one Saturday in August.
“The Angora Fire had me thinking about all of this, but it was out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” Doran said. “Then our fire happened. I guess I never really thought it would come to us. That was pretty naive.”
But on Aug. 18, Doran wasn’t acting naively; she was frantically trying to save her home and possessions from the Tahoe Park blaze that ultimately consumed five houses.
“On August 18, a Saturday, I smelled chemicals, and it bugged me so much I looked over at the neighbors and saw a small fire … Within two to three minutes there were 4-foot flames and I realized there was trouble,” Doran recounted.
By the time Doran called 911 the neighbor’s entire deck was in flames. That’s when she realized a decision had to be made: Leave with the evacuation or stay and fight for her home.
The five-year Tahoe Park resident decided to fight. Along with other neighbors, Doran started running in and out of her home and that of her neighbor, grabbing dogs and warning those unaware of what was happening around them. While she scrambled, the next house caught fire.
“Six people started hosing the homes, the fences, the trees, my shed, wherever fires were, and it went on for hours,” Doran recalled.
“I’ll never forget what Fire Chief [John] Pang said to me ” he said ‘do what you have to do, I’ll let you know when you have to leave,'” Doran said.
Doran was one of the lucky ones. Her choice to fight for her home paid off and her residence was saved. But looking back, Doran said she would have done some things differently to be ready at the first sight of a fire.
First, Doran said she has now put together a bag containing not only things of personal importance, but documents like insurance, mortgage papers and her passport.
“Now I have a suitcase, so I don’t even have to think about what to take,” she said.
Then came defensible space.
“I hired yard contractors to clean up defensible space; I got on that the very next week,” Doran said.
After that, Doran said she called her insurance company, upgrading her coverage.
“People need to think about what they need to take ” what they can and can’t live without,” said Duane Whitelaw, North Tahoe Fire Protection District fire chief. “And if there are things you absolutely can’t live without, you might think about not having it in your house.”
Whitelaw said families should have plans in place in case they become separated, with places to meet if cell phones aren’t working.
“There needs to be a place in or outside the community to meet, in the Angora Fire in some cases three to four hours passed before people knew if their family members got out,” Whitelaw said.
Some evacuation preparations aren’t so black and white, he said, and some widespread beliefs are debatable, including leaving house doors unlocked, turning off the gas, and wetting down the house.
“People should lock their doors, there is very little reason for firefighters to get inside, and if we need to, we can get in other ways,” Whitelaw said. Windows should be shut and blinds should be closed ” heat can transfer through windows and can start a curtain on fire.”
Shutting off the house’s gas supply is also controversial, with fire personnel saying homeowners should ” only if they have time ” and gas companies saying they shouldn’t, Whitelaw said.
Hosing down the home or garden could help or hurt the fight, depending on the situation, he said.
“Most subdivisions are supplied from a water tank that has only so much capacity, and if the power goes down the equipment to refill the tanks go down, so the limited supply should be saved for firefighting operations,” Whitelaw said. “Sprinklers aren’t enough to stop your house from going up ” there may be some merit to wetting the roof when there are floating embers ” but we would rather use the water for our direct operations.”
Whitelaw said people should have enough food, water and medications to be self-contained for three to five days, and have a battery-powered radio for information updates.
“A lot boils down to the info provided ” the greater concern during an emergency is do people know where to go for info ” we don’t want people calling 911 for everything,” Whitelaw said.
There are resources that people can seek out for information, as well as methods local agencies are working on to get in touch with residents.
“People need to know where to go for information like the radio (101.5 FM KTKE), Web sites like the town’s or the Sierra Sun, or television channels like channel 6,” said Truckee Police Chief Scott Berry.
A “reverse 911 system” can call a whole section of town with a few clicks of a mouse in the event of an emergency, said Truckee Assistant to the Town Manager Alex Terrazas. The system can broadcast a preprogrammed message quickly to affected residents.
To get the most out of the system, Terrazas said people should have wired phones ” as compared to wireless receivers ” that don’t require household electricity, in case of an outage.
Director of Facilities John Britto of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District said the schools have a similar tool in place.
“We can make as many as 5,000 calls in a minute to notify parents,” Britto said. “It worked pretty well during the recent evacuation of North Tahoe High and Middle School.”
Britto said that aside from the automated calling system, the school can post crisis information on its Web site, but said the district discourages parents from calling a specific school, which may need to keep its phone lines open. He suggested that parents instead call the district office at 582-2500 in the event of a crisis.
He said the school district is also working to make emergency procedures more consistent from school to school.
“All the schools have been doing a good job having their own site safety plans, but there are some differences between different school sites,” Britto said. “This year the schools will be following new plans.”
The district held its last disaster training in August, he said, with all school sites practicing some of the different scenarios, including evacuation on-site (like a traditional fire drill), shelter-in-place (keeping children inside the schools), a lock-down (for intruders in the school), and off-site evacuation (transporting to a remote location).
“Do what you are told during an evacuation, because if somebody decides to hang in, we may not be able to help them later,” Whitelaw said.
Chief Berry said no single strategy is followed in evacuations, because of the many variables like the type or location of the emergency.
“There’s no list of evacuation routes, but there is procedure for evacuation working with fire and California Highway Patrol,” Berry said. “In Truckee’s 36 square miles you can’t say everybody goes out that road when that road could be closed.”
During the recent fire above Interstate 80, Berry said a level-one evacuation was ordered, which simply meant notifying the residents of Tahoe Donner, and turning away anybody who didn’t live in the subdivision at its two entrances.
If a full evacuation is ordered, Chief Berry said residents should follow directions to a shelter, which would be set up at a large building like a school.
Farmers Insurance agent Donna Spicer said the firm insured three of the 254 homes lost in the Angora Fire, and three of the five destroyed in the Washoe Fire. To prevent additional loss, Spicer said it’s important for homeowners to make sure they have enough dwelling coverage, and to create some sort of an inventory of their possessions.
“It’s a good idea to go through your house with a video camera, or take pictures, or even just write out a list and put that in a safety deposit box,” Spicer said.
According to the California Department of Insurance, an inventory of the contents of a home should include the contents, value of the contents, and serial numbers when applicable. Spicer said insurance adjusters, even after a big fire, can still figure out what was lost in many cases.
“When an adjuster looks at a burn site they can tell ” things melt but they don’t melt completely,” Spicer said.
For a guide on how to create a home inventory, or for more information about insurance in an emergency, go to http://www.insurance.ca.gov.
An Emergency Preparedness Fair is coming the Truckee River Regional Park on Sept. 29 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., sponsored by the Medical Reserve Corps of Truckee.
Karen Sampson, the director of Medical Reserve Corps of Truckee, said local agency officials will have information on hand about emergency preparation, and can answer any specific questions people have on emergencies.
Participating groups will include the American Red Cross, Nevada County Sheriff’s, Tahoe Forest Hospital, Placer County Search and Rescue, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, Truckee Police, Care Flight, Truckee Fire Protection District, the Town of Truckee and others.
Besides informational packets and the advice of local officials, Sampson said the fair will feature raffles for emergency supplies and free hot-dogs and drinks.
For a complete list and explanation, go to http://www.redcross.org.
– Water: Store one gallon of water per person per day.
– Food: Store at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food.
– Tools and supplies: Battery-operated radio, flashlight, tarp, tape, matches, flare, etc.
– Sanitation: Toilet paper, soap, hygiene items, garbage bags.
– Clothing and bedding: Blankets or sleeping bags, rain gear, hat and gloves.
– Emergency car kit
– Important family documents: Will, insurance, contracts, deeds, passports, social security cards.
– First aid kit
– Medications and special items
Emergency kits should not only include supplies for human family members, but for their animal companions as well.
Pet-related items to include:
– Medications and medical records.
– Leashes, harnesses and carriers to transport and secure the animals.
– Current photos and descriptions of the pets in case a pet becomes lost.
– Food and water for at least three days.
– Information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, or behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian.
– Pet beds and toys if there is extra room.
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Friends of the Truckee Library gave a presentation at Tuesday’s Truckee Town Council meeting, providing an update on work to ensure a new library while asking for further support for the project.