Season’s a changin’, so are fire hazards
The weather the last two weeks has been wonderful. Not so unusual for Truckee in pre-spring but all the same, hard to complain. I imagine there are many of you out there who can be held directly accountable for the snowstorm we encountered Thursday night, though. The audacity you show to wash your cars, rake your lawn, fertilize and, the horror of all horrors, put away your snow blower. Well, you can relax. I have found the culprit and it’s not you. Lloyd Everett moved to Truckee in the 1950s and never left. He has been one of the members of the Fire District Board since 1972. He has seen more Truckee pre-springs than many of us, combined. Well, Lloyd put away his snow blower. It’s his fault and he should know better. We have talked, oh yes, did we talk.
But that is not why I am writing this article. The message is directly related, though. You may have noticed prior to Lloyd’s snowstorm, there were a lot of pine needles and ground showing on the sunny slopes, west and south facing. This is an indicator to firefighters that our business clientele is about to change and probably not how you would expect. The warm weather is an indicator of activities that cause fires for you and us. This is the time of year we notice our decks are faded and dry and naturally apply a nice coat of sealer or stain. Every spring and summer we have a number of fires from rags soaked with stain stored improperly that ignite spontaneously through a chemical reaction and cause significant damage. If you have rags soaked with stain, leave them out to dry, never fold them up and stuff them in a trash can or leave them on your bench folded up against the wall. They will burn I guarantee it, and it can take less than one hour.
Another problem we will encounter is directly related to those pine needles that are showing. Pine needles on the ground are what we call a “one-hour fuel.” What that means is they are dead and while sitting around outside they will always try to reach equilibrium with the environment around them, primarily the moisture in the air. If the air is very dry like the last two weeks, they will burn. They will reach equilibrium with the air in one hour, hence the term one-hour fuel. Wake up now, this is the important part. It is cold at night and the wood stoves are still burning. The ashes you tossed in the snow all winter did no harm other than visual. Now when tossed in the pine needles instead of snow they will slowly ignite those dry pine needles and carry a fire wherever the needles are exposed and dry. It is not the kind of fire that we saw last summer down south. It is sneaky. It will smolder all night and creep under your deck, into your woodpile, or up the side of your house. It will burn down your house while you are away or sleeping. Naturally the same analogy applies to open burning. You are all getting your burn permits and burning forest debris. I like you to do that. Remember that the needles will carry fire just as sneaky after you go away so make sure there is clearance around the burn pile and that it is out when you leave. It will surprise you; believe me it has happened to me! Don’t forget that dry wood roof and your woodstove as well. A dirty stovepipe after a winter of burning will catch on fire oh so subtlety and drop a hot clunker on those dry wood shingles. Those shingles are a one-hour fuel to.
In closing, I hope you picked up my message this week. It is starting to dry out between storms so be careful with discarded ashes in the needles and storage of rags soaked from staining decks and clean your stovepipe. It is a subtle ignition source that will sneak up on you. I will predict now you will read about a fire before long on this very subject. Oh, and don’t let me catch you putting away your snow blower, taking off those studs, or washing your car. It was Lloyd’s turn this time. You may be next. Come get a smoke detector, and be safe.
Mike Terwilliger is chief of the Truckee Fire Protection District.