Cambrian: Opinion

Backcountry fire: How to plan, prepare and respond

The columnist’s grandfather, Eldon “Red” Caskey, stands with his dog Skipper outside the cabin that burned down in a 1960 wildfire. From 1930 through the early 1960s, Caskey owned and ran several gas stations in Cambria including what is now the Old Stone Station.
The columnist’s grandfather, Eldon “Red” Caskey, stands with his dog Skipper outside the cabin that burned down in a 1960 wildfire. From 1930 through the early 1960s, Caskey owned and ran several gas stations in Cambria including what is now the Old Stone Station.

“I’d hate to live up here during a forest fire,” said a stranger who stopped me on the road to my mountain home. “Aren’t you afraid?”

“I pray for the best and prepare for the worst,” I replied.

When you live in a remote location, you have an awareness of your inaccessibility. Quadruple that cognizance when the vast views look and smell of smoke. Insecurity is multiplied when triple-digit temperatures contribute to the forest’s flammability. Add wind to the equation and you start to hold your breath.

Summer is a stressful time of year in parched wilderness areas including these vulnerable Santa Lucia Mountains in the backcountry of Cambria.

On this mountain, a fire in 1960 burned up several thousand acres. Trees became skeletal remains. My grandfather Eldon “Red” Caskey’s Jeep, cabin and belongings were destroyed. Thankfully, Grandpa and his dog Skipper survived. I remember the charred environment never diminished his appreciation of this land — land that recovered quickly and a half-century later is overgrown. Today, grassland dwindles as dense and woody vegetation encroaches. The tinderbox is full, and when drought-ridden kindling meets with a spark of stupidity, negligence, pyromania or lightning, the potential exists to destroy lives and lots of limbs.

Before a fire

▪  Develop an action plan.

▪  Be knowledgeable and familiar with escape routes.

▪  Create and maintain defensible space at least 100 feet from structures — to improve firefighters’ safety and efforts.

▪  Store important papers and valuables in a fireproof safe, off-site or in a handy “to go” satchel.

▪  Have a 5,000-gallon emergency water supply.

▪  Pack medications, glasses, clothes, food and water as well as a flashlight, batteries, cellphone and charger, wool blanket and toiletries. Don’t forget cash and mountain money (TP) in addition to other items specific to your family’s needs.

▪  Purchase a domed foil fire shelter.

When fire is nearby

▪  Have personal protective equipment (goggles, gloves …), fire extinguishers and firefighting tools (shovels, hoes …) within reach.

▪  Position ladder for roof access.

▪  Place connected hoses and buckets full of water around the house.

▪  Wear wool or cotton clothing (long pants, long-sleeved shirt, bandana) and leather footwear.

▪  Prepare to transport domestic animals.

If evacuation is imminent

▪  Turn off propane tanks and move propane appliances away from structures.

▪  Leave doors unlocked. Close windows.

▪  Skedaddle with your livestock, loved ones and gear.

If you’re trapped

▪  Notify 911.

▪  Breathe through a bandana to protect your lungs.

▪  Wear protective goggles, leather footwear and wool or cotton attire.

▪  Take shelter in a pond, creek or level clearing away from combustible material.

▪  Avoid canyons and ravines — channels of intense heat.

▪  Find a safety zone below the fire. A hot and hazardous burned-out area may be the safest nearby place.

▪  Seek low ground if the fire is upon you. Lie in a road rut or ditch to allow the convective current to flow over you. Use your fire shelter.

This isolated lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but for some of us the seasonal stress is worth the seclusion. Safety first, folks!

Over the ridge and off the grid, Michele Oksen writes Mountain Musings for The Cambrian. Contact her at MicheleOksen@gmail.com.

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