My Turn: Defensible space keeps firefighters safe | SierraSun.com

My Turn: Defensible space keeps firefighters safe

Bryce E. Keller

Last week, four of America’s finest lost their lives protecting life and property while battling a wildfire in Southern California. A fifth firefighter is in critical condition clinging to life.

For all of us in the fire service we mourn the loss of our fellow firefighters. These proud and brave men were assigned to a U.S. Forest Service engine company. Forever the lives of their loved ones, family and friends will be changed.

Many of you have watched the television news and have seen Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins speak passionately about the recent events. He reports that the cause of this fire has been determined to be arson. He has gone on to say that this is “murder.” I am a long time friend and professional colleague of John’s and I agree with what he has said. I am confident that John’s heart is broken as mine is over this tragedy.

I personally know individuals who are assembling as I write, to be part of the formal interagency accident investigation team. Their job will be to determine the elements and contributing factors that led to this horrific tragedy. We need to honor that process and allow the investigators to reach their conclusions and not rush to judgment.

I am passionate about this because first and foremost I am responsible for the health, safety and welfare of Truckee Fire District’s firefighters. Having spent more than 32 years in the fire service; including 26 years with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, I understand the risks involved with wildland fire fighting and the challenges posed while engaged in a firefight. The fire service will continue to take great risks when life is threatened and will take few risks when only property is threatened. That’s just the way it is. Now that I am “Fired Up” please read on.

Nowhere else in the world is there a greater wildland fire danger than in California. And nowhere in the world is there a more comprehensive fire fighting force than in California. These forces developed out of survival over the last two centuries.

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What makes me angry, is the lack of personal responsibility by homeowners who have chosen to live in the wildlands and urban intermix of California. Not just in Southern California but across the nation and in our own backyards. For decades the fire service has preached fire safety defensible space. There are laws and ordinances that require such work to be done. Fire and other agencies offer assistance programs to get the work done. Yet it all seems to fall on deaf ears.

Defensible space, when done properly, increases the odds of your house surviving a spreading wildfire on its own without fire engine support. Proper defensible space also affords a safe area for engine companies to work while protecting your life, property or conducting perimeter control.

During the course of this tragic accident investigation questions will be asked; they will include, did the homeowner have adequate defensible space? Did the engine company have a safe place to operate? Both items are the responsibility of the homeowner.

Before it’s too late and before your lack of action contributes to a tragedy like the one that occurred last week, be proactive. Create defensible space! Your lives and the lives of others may depend on it.