With Wildfire Season Dead Ahead, Pasadena’s Fire Chief Reflects on Lessons Learned Last Year

Pasadena firefighters have begun brush clearance inspections at 4,000 Pasadena homes, with a greater sense of urgency than in many past years

Published : Friday, April 26, 2019 | 5:41 AM


Last year saw some of the most devastating wildfires in California’s recorded history. Pasadena was spared, but now drier summer weather is sharpening the Department’s focus on dangers just ahead.

“We can never speculate on what’s going to happen specifically but what we do know is some of the largest fires in the history of our state have happened in recent years,” Pasadena Fire Chief Bertral Washington said on Wednesday. “What we’re choosing to do is prepare ourselves as best as possible for a fire season that’s going to be as challenging as last fire season.”

A Pasadena Fire Department engine is enveloped in smoke as its crew responds to a brush fire in 2016. Image: Pasadena Fire Dept.

But he went on to downplay the notion of there being a “fire season” anymore.

“We’re definitely treating it now as an all-year thing that we have to keep our eyes on,” he said, pointing out that last year’s disastrous trifecta of major fires — the Woolsey Fire, the Hill Fire, and the Camp Fire, all ignited in November.

“It was devastating,” Washington said.

Washington offered an update for residents, visitors and people who work in Pasadena.

“Be vigilant,” he warned.

“We’re fortunate that the homes we inspect on an annual basis, they do an excellent job clearing brush.  We just started our annual brush inspection in early April and we’re going out and we’re going to be inspecting 4,000 homes. We’re out there taking a look.

“There’s no charge for the first inspection we do, this is to check in to make sure the clearance has been done, to help provide information we can share and get to know our neighbors even more. That’s the big item for us is that we’re out and we’re going to be out until June.”

Washington said that it’s important to pay attention in the warmer weather for a variety of reasons.

“Obviously in the summer, it’s warmer and it can be drier, and with the heat and dryness. The dryness adds to the fire potential,” he said. “What we also experience in the late summer and fall months are the Santa Ana winds, so whenever you have dry weather when relative humidity is low and winds are sustained at high level, that’s weather we consider to be ‘fire weather’ and we will call for red flag warnings.”

When there is a threat of fire in the foothills, it’s something to pay attention to, Washington said.

“Last year there was a fire in the Monrovia area we were watching closely,” he said. “Anything that happens along the foothills if you can’t control or stop it, can damage a lot of the communities along the foothills. Then more in the Los Angeles County jurisdiction there was a fire near Mt. Wilson and that’s obviously close to the community as well. We’ve had a few small acreage fires within the city, one by JPL, around the 134, 210 exchange. Fortunately we were able to get those out very quickly.”

As climate change and new development encroach, all Fire Departments have many new challenges. But Washington said he is fortunate to have great personnel and he is confident the department can handle a wide range of situations.

“The staffing that we have is very, very good,” he said. “Our firefighters do a significant amount of training, they work hard, they do a great job. They’re certified on a variety of levels specific to wild-land firefighting. We have eight fire stations with eight fire engines, two fire trucks, we have a patrol which we staff accordingly, we have a water tender that carries a lot of extra water so we can get to remote areas with water. And we deploy those resources very quickly to extinguish fires before they expand to hundreds or thousands of acres, so that’s really our strategy.”

Mutual aid agreements with other stations help solve any manpower issues, he said.

“If we run into a situation where maybe there’s an arsonist, or for whatever reason a fire takes off in a manner where we can’t extinguish it as quickly as we’d like to, the mutual aid agreements we have provide the robust resources we really need when we have these very large fires.”

It depends on where the fire is, as to which fire departments would assist on a bigger fire.

“The way mutual aid works is that we have staff members on notice, they’re on deck all day every day and we rotate that responsibility amongst the cities.  The entire state is broken into six regions and LA is Region 1 and within Region 1, it’s so densely populated we have a variety of areas. Area A, B, C, and so on through G. So within region 1, most of the San Gabriel Valley is Area C. Pasadena is Area C operational coordinator. Part of my responsibility is to have resources on the ready to respond to anything that might happen in Area C or the region.”

There has been an increase in fires over the years, Washington said.

“Over the past five years we’ve had some of the largest fires,” he said. “I don’t know what scientific theory has been proven but I can tell you there are theories because of the drought and now that we had the rain now we have vegetation growing so the concerns about the amount of fuel, and there’ve been studies that show that temperatures have been rising, our seasons have been warmer, so these are some ideas.”

How Can Citizens Help – Keep Homes Safer

What is the best way citizens can help mitigate the threat of fire in their vicinity?

“The thing they can do is create a defensible space,” Washington said. What that means is they clear dry and dead brush from around their homes. We typically ask people who live in the high hazard severity zone to clear all vegetation from at least 30 feet around their home. And if they’re in the very high hazard area that would be 50 feet, mostly the Linda Vista area and up into the Northwest finger of the City of Pasadena and also on the east side, in Hastings Ranch, where the State of California has identified a hazard severity zone.

• Clean up dead trees and trim

“We want to make sure our trees are healthy, so part of health is one, not being dry or dead, but also the trees are trimmed and not hanging over the home, or too low to the ground so that is there were a spark or fire they would burn too easily, catch the house on fire.

• Clear the gutters on the house

“Keep the gutters clear, again it can be dry leaves and debris that builds up in the gutters.”

• Sign up for the Pasadena emergency alert notifications

“Sign up for the PLEAS, the Pasadena Local Emergency Alert System.  With a lot of the disasters we saw, the major fires we saw especially where we saw deaths, as a result there were discussions and concerns about notifications whether they were made or received. So we’re really asking our residents and the people who work or visit to sign up for mass notification system. That’s available on our website. There are a variety of ways to be notified.”

Washington said there may be new technology and new developments to help defend against fires in the future.

“One thing that has been discussed is can we harden development, can we build homes in a way that is more fire safe,” Washington said. “Or avoid areas where topography of the land is more susceptible to a fire and we avoid developing in those areas.”

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