Citizen-launched Fire Safety Council urges wildfire safety measures

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Citizen-launched Fire Safety Council urges wildfire safety measures
From left: Contra Costa County Fire Marshal Chris Bachman, Soheila Bana, Pinole Fire Chief Chris Wynkoop.

By Mike Kinney

The West Contra Costa Fire Safety Council (WCCFSC) was founded by citizen and community advocate Soheila Bana to increase public awareness about emergency preparedness and wildfire prevention at both the individual and community levels.

The Council, in which Richmond Fire Chief Angel Montoya serves as a liaison, has been urgently busy. It is working with local fire agencies on various projects such as clearing vegetation and creating emergency egress routes and fire trails in local communities. Bana and the Council are also pressing PG&E to conduct what they describe as critical weed abatement and vegetation management around the utility’s transmission towers in El Sobrante Valley. It is additionally gearing up alongside the Richmond Fire Department to celebrate Fire Prevention Week via an open house at Fire Station 63 on Oct. 15.

We recently caught up with Bana to learn more about WCCFSC, including its goals and current projects and initiatives.

RS: What is the West Contra Costa Fire Safety Council and what are its goals and objectives?

BANA: WCCFSC has been established to increase public awareness about emergency preparedness and wildfire prevention both at individual and community levels. I am the founder and president of the WCCFSC.

Our goal is to educate the public to start fire prevention at home, and at the same time urge municipalities, fire departments, and other related agencies to do their share. We educate homeowners to protect their homes through hardening and defensible space, and ask property owner agencies, such as EBRPD and EBMUD as well as the City and County, for vegetation management and fuel reduction on their properties. I am glad to say that all these agencies are cooperating with the WCCFSC and are on our Advisory Board.

Richmond Fire Chief Angel Montoya, who also serves as the WCCFSC Agency Liaison, has played a crucial role in bringing together major stakeholders in public safety to join the WCCFSC Advisory Board.

RS: What are some of the current projects that WCCFSC is working on?

BANA: WCCFSC is working with CCCFPD to utilize Measure X resources in West Contra Costa. Recently, Crew 12 cleared vegetation on Castro Ranch Road to make it a relatively safe evacuation route for Carriage Hills and Castro Heights neighborhoods.

For communities that have only one egress route, WCCFSC is working with their fire departments to facilitate an emergency egress. The first such egress route for public emergency is in progress between Rancho Road in El Sobrante and Galbreth Road in Pinole. WCCFSC has brought together the CCCFPD, Pinole Fire Department, the City of Pinole, and the homeowners to facilitate an egress route that would only be available to the public during an emergency. We are now looking into a similar egress route for Hilltop Green community because they also have one way in and out of their community. Richmond Fire Chief has taken the lead to request Public Works for a plan and estimate as the first step.

“Our goal is to educate the public to start fire prevention at home, and at the same time urge municipalities, fire departments, and other related agencies to do their share.”

WCCFSC requested and also assisted RFD to conduct the first emergency evacuation drill in Richmond. The point of the drill was to make sure that City and County emergency responders and administrators could coordinate efforts. RFD led the project in cooperation with RPD, County Sheriff’s Office, Con Fire, and the Office of Emergency Services (OES) in both the City and County. Carriage Hills and Castro Heights were selected for the drill due to their higher resident participation in emergency preparedness. The drill was successful in terms of achieving coordination between different agencies for a Community Warning System (CWS) announcement, showing it on Zonehaven map, and having law enforcement direct the traffic towards the designated destination, Hilltop Mall, while volunteers counted traffic in different routes. However, only 50 people participated in the drill which showed very low public awareness about CWS. Hence, WCCFSC worked hard to educate the public about CWS and Zonehaven which led to our cooperation with the County Tax Collector for an insert in the property tax envelope.

You might have received this insert in your property tax bill this year (see below). WCCFSC has been working with the CCC Tax Collector and CCCFPD to raise public awareness about Community Warning System (CWS) and Zonehaven and here is the result where all property owners learn about enrolling in CWS to receive public emergency warnings, and also would learn about their zone so they know when for example an evacuation order pertains to their zone.

About 90 percent of wildfires start by humans. WCCFSC has requested Fire Danger Today signs to be installed in Richmond and El Sobrante so on Red Flag days when elements of wildfire — heat, low humidity, and wind — are present, people would not take actions that generate ember or spark, such as BBQ or using eclectic saw. CCCFPD has just installed the first sign and will install two more signs. RFD is in the process of installing them, and EBRPD has received our request.

Picture of the first Fire Danger Today sign at San Pablo Dam Road & Castro Ranch Road by Con Fire.

EBRPD recently provided a tour to Fire Chief Montoya and I of their wildfire mitigation efforts in Richmond, from Miller Knox to Sobrante Ridge. WCCFSC and Chief Montoya made some suggestions regarding fuel management and requested assistance with CEQA process for city properties.

Bana took this photo of the EBRPD team and Chief Montoya: from left to right: Captain Patrick McEntyre, Assistant Chief Khari Helae, RFD Chief/WCCFSC Agency Liaison Angel Montoya, EBRPD Fire Chief Aileen Theile, Fuels Reduction Coordinators Collin Gallagher and Steve Keller.

Please see a detailed report of the tour here.

RFD and WCCFSC are celebrating the Fire Prevention Week on Oct. 15 through an open house at Fire Station 63 (corner of Amend Rd & Valley View Rd) where fire safety tips and information about becoming FireWise will be provided to the public.

WCCFSC plans to start a campaign for identifying fire trails by neighbors and working with the fire departments to make sure they are accessible by a fire truck and are clearly marked. This is because neighbors have already reported three fire trails that were either not marked or inaccessible.

Finally, WCCFSC works with Emergency Communication Network volunteers to expand and enhance the network.

RS: Your organization has concerns about the PGE transmission towers in the El Sobrante Valley. What are the safety issues?

BANA: PG&E has a series of very high voltage transmission towers that run through EBRPD where vegetation is dense, and there are many dead and dying trees that are actually fuel, ready to be ignited. WCCFSC has asked PG&E for weed abatement and vegetation management around them, but has not heard back yet. There is a transmission tower on Baywood that has fire logs stored close to its base, and its base is surrounded by wood fence. I asked PG&E representative to provide a warning to the homeowner, just for their information, that storing fire logs and wood fence at the base of the tower are not good practices but PG&E denies any responsibility in this regard.

RICHMOND STANDARD: The West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council also has great safety concerns about the ‘C’ hooks on the PGE transmission towers in the El Sobrante Valley. What exactly is the ‘C’ hook’s purpose on the transmission towers and what danger does it present?

BANA: A C hook is a huge metal hook in the shape of letter C that holds high voltage transmission lines. When a worn C hook broke and its high voltage transmission line fell, it created a spark that caused the Camp Fire which destroyed the city of Paradise and killed 85 people. As I mentioned, there are many transmission towers in Richmond/El Sobrante area, mostly in the EBRPD amongst the thick vegetation and fuel. Hence, I contacted PG&E and expressed concern over a possible scenario in our area; I asked them to inform us if the C hooks are old or new, are they being regularly checked, etc. To my surprise, I was told that their records show them to be wooden poles. Consequently, I invited the PG&E safety officer to come to the area and see them for himself next week.

RS: The WCCFSC has formed many alliances with fire-fighting  jurisdictions and some cities here in West County. How will these alliances benefit the WCCFSC’s work and advocacy?

BANA: Firefighting agencies, such as CalFire, Con Fire, and Pinole Fire Department are on the Advisory Board of WCCFSC for two main reasons. First, fire has no border, and we need to do vegetation management and fuel reduction across jurisdictional lines. Secondly, these agencies need to work together when providing solutions such as egress routes, which also involves multiple jurisdictions, like El Sobrante and Pinole, or Richmond and Pinole. In addition, I am glad to say that recently our law enforcement agencies, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office and Richmond Police Department, have also joined the Advisory Board because by the state law, they are responsible for public emergency evacuation and play a crucial role in case of a wildfire.

There is one more reason for our cooperation with Con Fire; they are in charge of Measure X and are helping us with Crew 12 in vegetation management, clearing evacuation routes, and helping communities become FireWise.

I should add that the City of Richmond is a major property owner who lacks proper vegetation management in its own properties, and this is causing major wildfire safety concerns. We could ask for some Measure X resources for fuel reduction, but the CEQA requirement is a costly impediment and we are trying to figure out how to resolve it.