Just a week and half after the Kincade Fire swept through the Knights Valley community claiming several properties, residents gathered to implement a strategic program that can greatly assist first responders doing their jobs.
COPE (Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies) is a framework to get vital information about families, neighborhoods, and any helpful and critical resources into the hands of first responders.
Linda Collister is the Fire Marshal in Healdsburg, where the program is already in place. She said during the Kincade Fire, communication with COPE leaders “was amazing. What we found out after was that neighbors were helping neighbors because (first responder) resources were tapped out.”
With wildfires, the fact is, “When you need us the most, we’re not going to be there,” said Marshall Turbeville, Chief of the Geyserville Fire Department. What he meant was that by the time the fire is at your driveway, the department is out fighting on the front lines.
“We can’t be everywhere 24/7. The real heroes are citizens involved and doing things like COPE.”
Knights Valley sits at the base of Mount St. Helena, and although in Sonoma County, it shares a zip code with Calistoga and is just north over the Napa County border. Calistoga was on an advisory evacuation for several days before containment, as the fire was threatening the town from just five miles away.
COPE was started by residents of Oakmont, in Santa Rosa, in the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs Fire. The organization has spread to neighborhoods throughout the county, and now to Knights Valley. The community was evacuated during the recent Kincade Fire, which started Oct. 23, burned 77,700 acres in Sonoma County and was contained Nov. 7.
More than two dozen residents of the community gathered Nov. 17 at the Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
Turbeville, also a Cal Fire Battalion Chief, said the need for the communication and transfer of neighborhood information before the start of any emergency situation is vital, and the commitment to be a COPE leader is minimal. You are asked to be responsible for information about five of your neighbors, gathering information like where neighborhood water sources are; who has a six-inch hose; who and where are the people who have chainsaws; where is there room for a helicopter to land; and a list of gate codes, and phone numbers.
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This information gets funneled up through the ranks to people in command like Turbeville. When firefighters come up from Colusa County or elsewhere, this basic information about the neighborhood and its resources is readily available before an emergency event, to sheriff deputies who don’t know your area, Turbeville said.
Preparation is also crucial. That includes taking more time to be prepared by doing things like cleaning gutters, buying generators, and preparing to evacuate.
The Kincade Fire was different than the Tubbs Fire, in that it was more remote with more time to warn people who had more time to prepare to evacuate. There were no deaths associated with the Kincade Fire, versus 22 with the Tubbs Fire.
“Differences are made now. One minute (of prevention) now is equal to gold during an emergency,” Turbeville said.
COPE starts with small neighborhood groups, gathering phone numbers, making sure everyone has a go bag and the yard has defensible space. It can expand into a larger organization which can, as a collective voice, advocate for warning sirens or cell phone towers.
Val Swisher is a COPE leader in Knights Valley. She said she owns her own company, has a family and other obligations, but makes time for COPE.
“We live in the boonies. At the end of the end we only have each other,” she said.
Fire Marshal Collister said she wasn’t aware of any COPE groups in Napa County. If you have an interest to join a COPE group or start your own, contact Collister at 431-3125. There is also a COPE leadership meeting in Healdsburg once a month.