By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent
Golden Gate Estates in Southwest Florida east of Naples looks quite a bit different than it did back in 1985. Today there are four lane roads, strip malls, housing developments, and, of course, traffic. Thirty years ago, the roads were two lanes that faded into dusty streets with a few homes scattered amongst the Pine trees and cabbage palms. Heck, I don’t recall a traffic light, just stop signs at intersections.
January of that year brought with it bitter cold and a nasty biting wind. Couple that with drought conditions and you had an ideal recipe for a wildfire. We got the call January 30, “Get over to Golden Gate.” A young Forest Ranger had been killed when he was plowing a fire break and the head of the fire blew up around him.
None of us had ever covered a wildfire before. That night you could see the embers jumping from tree to tree and swirling in the cold wind. I stood in the high dead grass at the edge of a dirt road with my back to the woods. I had just started my on-camera presentation when Steve Sonnenblick, our engineer, saw it coming. He yelled to watch out, grabbed my winter coat, and pulled me onto the gravel. The fire swept across the dry brush where I had been standing. The heat was like opening an oven door. That’s the nature of wildfires. They are like living, breathing organisms consuming everything in their path. When there is nothing left to devour, they move on. And in an instant, a place you thought you were safe was NOT.
I was reminded of that night in 1985 while watching coverage of the fires raging in Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona. While the American West sees more than its fair share of fires, every state is at some risk. Remember the headlines “Florida on Fire” back in 1998? More than 2,000 fires scorched half a million acres causing $600 million in losses. Three hundred homes were engulfed. At one point, 100,000 people were evacuated. In 2002, the Hayman fire outside Denver consumed nearly 140,000 acres and destroyed 130 homes. Annually, there are 75,000 wildfires that burn an average of 7 million acres and destroy thousands of homes and structures. And get this. Many fires are caused, firefighters have told me, just by people who throw cigarette butts out their car window.
During those 1998 Florida fires, one woman apparently in shock spilled her heart about losing everything, “Every baby book. Every hair lock from when they were young. Everything. All their clothes and all their toys.” That doesn’t need to be you. There are things you can and should do to easily make your home a defensible space. Here are a few:
- Clean leaves and debris from gutters, eaves, porches, and decks.
- Remove dead vegetation from under your porch and deck and within 10 feet of your home.
- Move flammable material like firewood piles and propane tanks to no closer than 30 feet from your home.
- Cover exterior attic vents with metal mesh to prevent hot embers from entering.
- Keep your yard watered and maintained.
- Prune trees so the lowest branches are no less than six-to-10 feet from the ground.
And, by all means have an evacuation plan. You may have to get out in the face of a wildfire, but if you do the simple things to protect your property, chances are you will still have a home to go back to. There are many other invaluable tips and videos you can find at www.flash.org.
I went to California for the Anderson Cooper show in 2007 to cover the horrible fires outside Los Angeles and in San Diego. The first night, we flew in a helicopter over the foothills. You could see pockets of fire in all directions. While some of them were caused by lightning strikes, others were, sadly, the result of arson. At least five people were arrested. FLASH documented one homeowner’s journey during these fires in the video Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire.
Whatever the cause, why risk losing everything when just doing the little things could save your home and more importantly your life? Take a good look at those wildfires burning out west. Do you need any more of a wake-up call?
Links of Interest:
Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire (video)
#NoFuelNoFire (wildfire photo gallery)