Planning for fire

•Homes on flat land should have at least 30 feet of cleared space and 100 feet of thinned lands surrounding them — more on slopes.

•Make sure address numbers on houses and the entry to driveways are large and prominent. Firefighters also use other addresses to determine where they’re headed, so having addresses prominently displayed helps neighbors, too.

•Neighbors who share a private road, particularly a long one, need to put address signs at the entrance to the road and again where the driveways fork.

•Keep brush cleared along easements to reduce fuel loads and allow large emergency vehicles access.

•Keep grasses trimmed low.

•Make sure to have at least two exits in the house, and fire escape ladders available in loft areas.

•Know all the exits from your neighborhood.

•Remember that your earthquake “go-kit” should be outfitted for other emergencies, as well.

•Visit nfpa.org for a complete list of fire prevention and preparation recommendations.

Source: National Fire Protection Association

A fire that destroyed a cabin at Whaleshead Resort last weekend drove home the point about having a second way to escape from neighborhoods that have only one way out.

A meeting with fire officials will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at the Whaleshead Resort restaurant to discuss issues in that neighborhood, which features narrow, winding, steep roads, homes that are mere feet from each other and one primary entrance and exit.

Sandra Miller was staying in a neighboring cabin.

“It’s pretty terrifying when there’s no escape route, waking up at 3:25 to a ball of fire a stones throw from your house,” she said. The fire was less than a foot away from a propane tank. If it weren’t for residents here, I would have maybe slept through it. I’m still really shaken up about it.”

Miller said no one was alerting neighbors, and she discovered the water had been shut off when she tried to turn on her hose to douse sparks in the dry grass.

Miller released her cats into the woods and started loading her car.

“What should you grab?” she said. “A baby picture, family photos, boots, clothes. I had three or four minutes to get out of there. I was so terrified at what was happening.”

She knows from experience, having lived for a short period in Cave Junction when several fires were burning nearby.

“The car is packed. I’m leaving it packed: sleeping bag, tent, water.”

Miller also worried about people around here.

“There was an 80-year-old guy still in his house,” she said. “There’s a lot of people with mobility issues here. I was really upset something wasn’t in place.”

She walked the back road the next day, but signs reading “Private land, no trespassing,” and dogs barking there made her think it might not be an option.

Whaleshead management could not be reached for comment.

“We talked to (now-former management) two years ago,” said Harbor Fire Chief John Brazil. “For the same spot to catch fire, for the same water supply, and they totally ignored us. You tell them and tell them they need to provide better life and safety issues. We are in the business of prevention. If we can prevent something from going sideways; this being reactive is not what we’re supposed to do.”

Prepare now

Firefighters face numerous challenges in rural Curry County, said Lt. Hill of the Cape Ferrelo Rural Fire Department.

Addresses are difficult to spot, if they’re even on the house or end of a driveway.

According to Brazil, many residents say they have their addresses posted on their mailboxes. That doesn’t help if the mailboxes are in a cluster, or if the address is displayed on only one side.

The fire departments often use internet applications such as googlemaps or the county’s GIS system — but they don’t rely on them.

“They’re not always correct, and we might not have service,” Brazil said. “Ours are written in paper form in a book. We know the book works. We do use GIS; when it works it’s wonderful, but we can’t depend on it 100 percent. I’m doing audit work on the GIS system, and have already sent 12 roads (to GIS support) that are not shown or not labeled right.”

The Cape Ferrelo department, a day after the fire at Whaleshead Resort, was summoned to the report of a man suffering a stroke.

“We couldn’t find him because there were no (addresses),” said Hill. “That is a shocker. We found him eventually, but that takes time. The easements weren’t cut back (of brush), and there was no way to turn around. We had to back out a half-mile in a crew cab pickup. There was no way we could get a big (fire) truck out.”

Some residents purposely make the situation worse by downing trees across private roads to prevent people from using them, he said. It keeps emergency vehicles out, too.

“There’s a mountain ranch in our district where they dropped wood — big wood,” Hill cited. “It would take us a half-hour to cut through it. Put a gate there (instead.) Put a lock on it; we’ll cut the lock so we can get in. We’ll replace the lock. We don’t want to go anywhere there’s not two ways out of. We’re not even going to fight (a fire in that situation.)”

Narrow roads have impeded emergency vehicles in the past, and gets particularly daunting if there’s no turnaround at the top — or worse, if residents from above are trying to escape.

“God forbid if it’s something like Crown Terrace,” Brazil said of a hillside neighborhood north of Harbor Hills, and in which another subdivision is planned. “There’s only one way in. If there’s an incident at the bottom going up the hill and emergency equipment in the roadway, people up there have no way out.”

It’s part of the reason Brazil has sat on the county planning commission the past eight years.

“That’s where part of the prevention starts,” he said of development zoning and road standards. “Addressing, access, road width, height and turnaround.”

Water availability

Another issue is access to water, fire officials agree. Water can sometimes be drawn from nearby streams, but often, firefighters must resort to hauling water from the nearest hydrant and pouring it into a giant pool from which the fire engine draws it.

Others believe a 500-gallon cistern is adequate for firefighting needs. But when fire danger is highest, in the late summer and fall, those water levels are often lower — and sometimes nonexistent — in tanks by then.

“There’s a lot of water around this county, but it would be nice if there were fittings (on the cisterns) so we can get the water out of them,” Hill said. “At Whaleshead, we asked them to put in hydrants, in fittings, and they haven’t since the last fire.”

Cistern owners should affix male, 2.5-inch NPSH (national pipe straight hose thread) adapters. Those industry adapters can withstand high heat and pressure often experienced at a fire scene.

Hill said the former owners of Whaleshead Resort said they “used too much of their water” at the last fire — ironically, at the same cabin on the steep hill two years ago — and “wouldn’t let us use the water this time. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Others think their home insurance or extra fire insurance will recoup their losses.

But sometimes insurance companies fight the claim, noting that the wildfire didn’t start in the house or that they don’t cover wildland fires, especially in places where trees surround the other homes, he said.

Preparation

County Commissioner Court Boice and others are trying to get federal funding to maintain the forests back where it belongs and not diverted to firefighting efforts that could have been prevented through that maintenance.

In a recent meeting Boice hosted with emergency directors, state police and fire officials, they spoke of residents’ need for plans for a fire — the common saying is, “Not, if, but when.”

“We have mutual aid agreements: the Coos Forest Protective Association, city, rural and Forest Service (firefighters) — that’s four levels of protection here,” he said. “But the biggest (problem) we have are that people aren’t taking the responsibility. People are dropping the ball; they’re being lazy. Your neighbors depend on you paying attention. It has got to be done. There are some life and death situations there.”

He cited gorse in the northern end of the county and Sudden Oak Death-killed trees in the south.

“It’s a combination for a huge fire,” Boice said. “The fuel is off the charts. How much worse could (the Whaleshead fire) have been, and we’re not even in fire season yet.”

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