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Winter fire prevention: It’s your responsibility

On Fire, Michael S. Terwilliger, fire chief at the Truckee Fire Protection District.

I was thinking the other day about our community. Mainly, I was wondering if folks who live here are really ready for another winter? Generally, my opinion as a whole was … probably not. But, let me explain.

I guess it starts with our approach to dealing with problems we face throughout the summer and how we expect problems will be handled. Let’s take an easy one like defensible space. Oh no, Mike (yawn) not defensible space. Yes, because it is a perfect representative of an “attitude.” More than 4,000 homes just burned down in Southern California under typical Santa Ana wind conditions. You heard it right – typical! What is so frustrating to me is it does not have to happen. Defensible space. What does that really mean? It means that property owners recognize and accept their responsibility to ensure a wildfire burning does not ignite their home and, in doing so, gives firefighters a safe place to work while augmenting the benefits of the defensible space work. Why did I use the term “attitude?” If you look at the defensible space in this community, it is readily apparent that many folks have an attitude that someone else is going to fix things when a wildfire hits because so many homes are not defensible. I also bet that folks reading this far might say to themselves, “Well, it is the fire department’s responsibility to tell them to clear the defensible space, right?” That is what leads me to believe that the same people might think someone is going to bail them out from winter problems as well.

So, when the boat is leaking and it is time to start bailing, who gets called? You guessed it, at a minimum 911, which translates to fire and police. We do OK at times but when the problem is big, like a regional winter storm or a major wild fire, you just might be on your own for a spell. I also know when I show up to help you with that leaky boat, it is never appreciated when I say something like “looks like you should have fixed that boat before you put it in the water.” With that tirade out of the way, here are some things, again, to consider for this winter:



Natural Gas/Liquid Propane Gas: Look at the installations at your property that provide you natural gas and propane. Do the LPG tanks have adequate protection from heavy snow accumulations? Are the lines from the tank secure and protected properly? Is the cover over the regulator at your house in good shape or there at all? Ask your gas company representative to look it over. Call the fire department, and we will come out and look for you. Just do something to ensure it is OK after this summer and last winter.

Address: This is a year-round problem but enhanced in the winter. Is your address posted on your home where we, not you, can find it? As an example, as we get the 911 call and respond to your house, we don’t know you put 3-inch wood numbers the same color as your siding on a dark side of your house. Are they covered when snow is piled up? Have they fallen off? Are they facing a street that is not representative of your actual address? Are they the right numbers? Are they there at all? Does the UPS have a hard time finding you? Do you have a P.O. Box, and you don’t care? Do you have a hard time getting home? It is your responsibility, and we are willing to help.



Hot Ashes: We burn down or damage a fair amount of houses when wood-burning season shows up. It is because folks clean out the stove and place the ashes in a box or bag on the deck. This is fixable with some planning. Don’t wait to clean the stove until you have to shove the wood in with your foot. Do it when it is mild and the stove is not so popular. Do it every Tuesday morning or when you have steak for dinner. Just develop a routine. Place the ashes in a non-combustible container and place the container on a non-combustible surface for at least two days. Before discarding the ashes, stick your hands in the ashes to make sure they are not hot. If you don’t check for heat, you will either burn up your trash can, your house, the garbage truck or the processing plant at the dump. Incidentally, all of the above has happened on numerous occasions, and believe me, you have not really enjoyed life until you get to put out a fire in a mountain of smoldering garbage at the dump. It is your responsibility, and we are willing to help.

Care Package: Probably makes more sense to call it a “car package.” Make sure all your cars carry a few items at all times in the winter. A warm blanket or two, warm weather gear, including hats, gloves, coats, boots, drinking water in bottles, flashlight, matches and some snacks. How about a towing strap? Tire chains? Learn how to put them on during nice weather. Check your wiper fluid and replace your wipers. When you get stuck on Interstate 80 for 26 hours during a storm, you will have some way of surviving. I get a kick out of kids at the bus stop in shorts and T-shirts when it is 4 degrees outside. I wonder what the plan is when the bus breaks down and they have to sit in a cold bus for three hours waiting for help? I wonder what those kids will do when there is a fire at the school and we have to evacuate them. Unprotected kids in 5-below wind could freeze like Popsicles, literally, in the time it would take to walk to another adjacent school or get enough buses to load them up. It is your responsibility.

Home Preparedness: After getting a free smoke detector from the fire department, determine what convenience you have in your home that keeps you warm and comfortable. These need a back up plan now, not when the storm hits. How will you heat your home with no power or gas? How will you bathe if the hot water heater bites the dust? Are your candles in containers? This one is for the Ski Slope and Pinnacle Loop dwellers: What will you eat when you can’t get to the store, your dog? Here is the scenario: You come in to your cabin (4,000-square-foot home) on Friday night and say to yourself: Self, I will get food tomorrow. At, oh, dark-thirty the big one hits, and you are in this cabin without food for many days because the plows can’t get to you. Even with our awesome plow staff and excellent equipment, it can happen. Just ask the folks at West End Donner Lake. Plan ahead. I don’t know about you, but there is no way I will ever eat my dog. Yuck. It is your responsibility.

Hidden in all this rambling are two absolutes. First, you are responsible to take care of yourself. Second, dogs taste lousy. Firefighters and police officers come when you call, but we can’t fix the problem for you before it happens. The point is, we are not always available or we might be slow. Winter has not shown his/her ugly head for many years here. When it does – and it will – we will have enough problems, so why not head off the obvious? Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then come get a smoke detector and ask us questions. Most of all, have a safe winter.

Michael S. Terwilliger is fire chief at the Truckee Fire Protection District.


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