Convincing neighbors to become proactive about wildfire prevention can be challenging, especially during periods when wildfires are not raging across California. But a grassroots movement that is swiftly gaining momentum in Richmond is inspiring collaboration on preparedness and prevention year-round, not just when devastating fires appear in news headlines.
That was clear by the large attendance Saturday at Richmond Fire Station 63’s Open House BBQ, held in honor of National Fire Safety Week. Started last year, the Open House has already been successful in bringing community members together to talk about fire safety, said Richmond Fire Chief Angel Montoya. The chief said that more stations will look to host similar events during National Fire Safety Week next year.
Saturday’s Open House felt more like a festival, enlivened by a live DJ, face painting, raffle prizes and even artist craft vendors. Meanwhile, firefighters representing Station 63 on Valley View Road, an area at risk for wildfires, provided neighbors with tours of the fire station and demonstrations in administering CPR/AED and in using the fire extinguisher and fire hose.
Amidst the fun, residents were encouraged to connect to the County’s Community Warning System (CWS) (register here), which alerts residents and businesses to disasters, and also to the genasys Protect app (download here), which provides real-time emergency evacuation information in geographic zones. Residents were taught to “Know their zone,” as well as how to create defensible spaces on their properties. Marilyn Saarni with the UC Master Gardener Program exhibited fire-resistant landscaping at the Fire Station to help drive the point home.
Battalion Chief Anthony Woodards said it was “great to have everybody out and on alert” even when the region is not dealing with a current wildfire. Chief Montoya credited the sizable attendance to local citizens, one of them being recently-elected Richmond Councilmember Soheila Bana.
A public safety advocate long before holding public office, Bana helped to establish the West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council (WCCFSC) last year. The WCCFSC works to obtain state and federal grants to conduct fuel mitigation projects and education in the local community.
Chief Montoya said the WCCFSF has never been done before in Richmond and was established in “record time.”
“This speaks to the residents who live in Richmond and the volunteers who are doing it,” the chief said.
A retired engineer, Bana said her advocacy is why she was encouraged to run for City Council representing District 4, which includes neighborhoods at risk for wildfires. Before COVID brought people together via Zoom, Bana started a mailing list to connect people and agencies in the community. She noticed gaps in communications among agencies. When Fire Marshal Eric Govan began talking about a software called Zone Haven that could more effectively coordinate emergency evacuations, “we became active in getting it for Richmond,” Bana said.
The WCCFSF, which includes Pacific Gas & Electric Co, Chevron and Sims Metal Management as among its sponsors, is a collaboration of residents and representatives of local agencies such as local fire departments, PG&E, East Bay Regional Park District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Caltrans and the California Fire Safe Council. All work together to share information and identify solutions related to wildfire preparedness. In fact, a PG&E representative attending the Open House nodded intently when Bana suggested the utility would be increasing work to reduce wildfire risk within its local infrastructure.
The WCCFSF also trains residents and homeowners to become “FireWise” in defending the spaces around their homes, with neighbors often training neighbors.
“It’s important to connect all the dots, like emergency communications, CERT, fire departments, the Fire Safe Council,” Bana said. “We also connected with the fire safety councils in Berkeley and Oakland. We are trying to raise awareness, and also action in the community, like fuel reduction. We have been successful, but more needs to be done.”
Some of the WCCFSF projects have included fuel reduction around a fire access route between Heavenly Ridge Road and Silver Belt Drive, and the installation of shaded fuel breaks on the sides of Castro Ranch Road, an evacuation route for Carriage Hills and Castro Heights neighborhoods, according to the Council’s website.
Projects are funded by a portion of Measure X, a 20-year, half-cent sales tax passed by Contra Costa County voters in 2020 to support healthcare, childcare, emergency response and other critical countywide services.
Residents are encouraged to take part in the process of recommending that certain wildfire prevention projects and programs be funded via Measure X. The Measure X Community Advisory Board meets tonight at 5 p.m. On Nov. 28, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors is set to meet to determine the next package of projects that will be funded via Measure X revenue.