Questions and answers about Napa fire response

I lived in the 2300 block of Atlas Peak Rd. near the epicenter of the Atlas Fire. As I speak with my neighbors and attend community meetings, I hear many questions and complaints. I am not able to help fight the fires, but maybe I can help by addressing some of the questions as follows:

Why wasn’t more done to fight the fires and save structures?

The answer is very simple – safety of people comes first. Things can be replaced, lives cannot. Sunday night, emergency staff literally had to go door to door in the fire zones to make sure everyone was evacuating safely. The safety of everyone was the first priority, as it should be. The fires were advancing with such ferocity due to high the winds, it was not safe to send the limited crews or equipment to fight it. Resources were applied where they needed to be – saving lives.

I personally would not want saving my house a priority over saving my neighbors. I would not want firefighters to risk their lives to save my ‘things’ – this is too much to ask of anyone.

Why wasn’t there more air support?

Aircraft with fire retardant can’t fly safely at night to drop their loads. If wind and smoke conditions are such that it isn’t safe to fly during the day, they don’t. Resources are not infinite and there are only so many aircraft to fight fires, so they are applied where they can do the most good.

Why can’t I go to my property?

Mandatory evacuations are for a good reason – your safety. If a fire has already passed through your neighborhood and there isn’t anything left to burn, there are still safety risks of downed power lines, downed trees and various other unsafe conditions. You are being kept from the area for your own good. If a fire has not hit your neighborhood, but you are at risk of an approaching fire, you are once again evacuated for your own safety. Do you want firefighters evacuating people if the fire comes or protecting your home? Fires are unpredictable, which means evacuations must be done in all potential paths the fire may take.

Access to evacuated areas is often possible for true emergencies, such as getting medications or taking care of pets or animals left behind. One needs to understand that an escort is required for your safety and the safety of crews working. There is a difference between needing and wanting to go to the property. Everyone wants to see for themselves whether the house is standing or not, and in the latter case just for closure.

Emergency need warrants access, whereas wanting closure does not. It takes emergency personnel’s time to escort you which could be better spent on other activities such as protecting those now in danger. We must be patient and heed the advice of the professionals protecting us – if you don’t have true need to go to your property, please don’t.

When can I go to my property?

By now you can probably answer this yourself – when it is safe. The area must first not be at risk of a fire approaching or fires flaring due to hot spots. The area must be assessed by various crews for safety of power lines, gas lines, structural integrity, road access, and so on. Unfortunately, this all takes time which seems like an eternity while evacuated. Areas will be opened up for access as soon as possible, but also once again, the first priority is safety and protecting those now in danger.

What can I do to prevent this from happening again?

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This is a great question which is best left for the future. There are many resources available to help one be ‘firewise’. CalFire, the County of Napa and Napa Communities Firewise Foundation each have a wealth of information online in addition to staff for advice.

As you may have guessed, we lost our home the first night of the Atlas Fire. We were out of town that night, so fortunately my family and pet are safe.

I ask myself what more could I have done to prevent this? I had 300-plus feet of defensible space, zero scape near the structure, fire resistant decking, ember resistant vents, etc. The answer is nothing. My defensive measures would have saved my house in a normal fire. This was not a normal fire. The extremely high winds were apocalyptic driving the flames and embers. Do I regret all the work for defensible space? Absolutely not, and I will do it all again but even better.

I have volunteered for a few years to help with fire awareness and safety. I, therefore, had many offers from firefighters to personally take me to my property. I have respectfully declined these kind offers, sincerely saying I would rather have them helping others at risk than satisfying my need for closure. I hope that everyone follows my example and waits until the all clear notice is given to access your property.

I know too well the emotions of the situation. What many don’t consider is that the firefighters have similar feelings. Many take it personally that there was a loss of homes, or worse lives on their watch. Very hard decisions need to be made, which are often heart-wrenching for those making them.

I can assure you we are in the hands of outstanding professionals making the right decisions, albeit hard ones, for our safety and own good.

Tom Vreeland is a founding member of Atlas Peak Firesafe Council and president of Napa Communities Firewise Foundation.

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