While Richmond is largely urban, the city is not immune from wildfires. Over 4,000 Richmond properties are located within “very high fire hazard severity zones (VHFHS).”
Additional at-risk homes have been identified thanks to a recent effort by the Richmond Fire Department to develop a comprehensive wildfire prevention and response plan. On Tuesday, Fire Marshal Eric Govan and Emergency Services Manager Genevieve Pastor-Cohen presented an overview of those plans in a timely study session at City Council.
VHFHS properties are located in city areas including Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, the Richmond section of El Sobrante Valley, the East Richmond Heights Hills, Point San Pablo, Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, Point Richmond and Point Molate.
Amid another historic year of wildfires across the state, city officials say they’re actively monitoring these areas and coordinating with property owners and partnering agencies on strategies to protect lives and properties.
Thankfully, they have a plan. Govan recently led the development of the city’s first Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). Created with help from the Diablo Fire Safe Council, the plan not only provides strategy and guidance, but is required in order for the city to access certain state and federal grants, Govan said. This year, the plan was added as an appendix to the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
As part of prevention efforts, the RFD has a fire vegetation management program that includes visual inspections of all VHFHS properties within the city, according to Govan. Fire officials educate affected property owners about legally required steps they must take on their properties to reduce fire hazards, including guidance on creating defensible spaces by clearing weeds and brush from yards, fences, roofs and decks or using fire resistant landscaping. Such steps can protect a home from a wildfire that is near or far. Flying embers can be carried over a mile ahead of a wildfire, Govan said.
In addition to prevention, the city is taking steps to prepare for wildfires that prompt evacuations. The city is promoting “Ready, Set, Go” guidance that instructs residents to pay attention to alerts about red-flag warnings, and to plan ahead by assembling a “go kit” so they can evacuate promptly.
Go kits can include clothing such as underwear, flashlights, fully charged electronics that are gathered together in one place, and cloud or thumb drive storage for important documents.
“I can’t stress it enough, ‘When it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” said Govan, adding that he’s seen reports of property owners taking up to 1.5 hours to get their home in order to evacuate. “When you are doing it that late in the game, it’s too late.”
Genevieve Pastor-Cohen, the emergency services manager with RFD’s Office of Emergency Services, said city officials have been working with the other city departments, the county, AC Transit, Contra Costa College and other community stakeholders to collaborate on evacuation routes, shelter, traffic control and other emergency needs. At such times, the city’s Emergency Operations Center would be activated to coordinate the multi-agency response, Pastor-Cohen said.
Along with “go kits,” residents in high fire-risk areas should consider pre-determining a location to to meet family, and, on red-flag warning days, park their vehicles in the driveway rather than the garage, which may not open if the electricity goes out.
The city has been walking through and talking through potential evacuation plans with community partners to ensure it is prepared to respond, Pastor-Cohen said.
In response to the Tuesday’s presentation, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt expressed concern over fire risk at properties owned by the city and large businesses, calling them a bigger problem than single-family homes.
Butt said more needs to be done to compel businesses to remove fire risk from their properties. He also wants the cash-strapped city to look into reducing the land the city owns in high-fire risk areas so it no longer has to maintain them.