Volunteers Working to Prevent Fire From Sweeping Hoopa

Barbara Darst, Susan Abbott, and Paul Abbott from the Willow Creek Fire Safe Council shared their experiences with community members who want to start a Hoopa Fire Safe Council at the Neighborhood Facilities (NF) building on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. / Photo by Kristan Korns, Two Rivers Tribune

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

Volunteers working to start a local fire safe council met in Hoopa on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to talk about ways to help the Wildland and Volunteer Fire Departments reduce the threat of fire in the Valley.

Hoopa Wildland Fire Department Chief Gary Risling said a fire safe council was long overdue.

“We have areas with a lot of little four acre lots with fences and houses in there, and they’re all overgrown,” Risling said. “We want to reduce the number of fires and reduce the threat to lives.”

A similar volunteer program in Willow Creek has been successful in helping to clear brush in and around the town, even on private property.

Three volunteers from Willow Creek came to the Wednesday meeting in Hoopa to offer advice and share tips on how they were able to help reduce the threat of wildfires in their area.

Paul Abbott worked on the Fire-adapted Landscapes And Safe Homes (FLASH) Program in Willow Creek, with funding from Humboldt County.

“We go out and make home assessments and see if they need vegetation and brush clearing to protect against fires,” Abbot said.

Abbott said the Willow Creek Fire Safe Council (WCFSC) was able to use County grant money to pay landowners for clearing out brush on their property.

“We can reimburse the owner $650 per acre, up to a maximum of $3,000,” Abbot said. “We can also bring in wood chippers to help.”

Barbara Darst, the outgoing president of the WCFSC, said, “It’s made a huge difference and it’s very popular. This last year we did about 14 days of chipping.”

Community members in Hoopa hope to create a non-governmental volunteer and community-run fire safe council of their own.

Rod Mendes, the Office of Emergency Services (OES) director for Hoopa, said, “We have a vested interest as a community to develop this Fire Safe Council.”

Jack Jackson warned about the dangers of overgrown areas near houses.

“A house fire doubles in size every three minutes. I was in Malibu when they lost 1,000 homes in one day,” Jackson said. “If something happened and we had a hot dry summer and the wind was right, it could sweep through the valley in an hour.”

Mendes said that making the valley fire safe would also create jobs and provide employment for people in the Hoopa Valley.

“Look at all that vegetation right near peoples’ homes. When you have 30 or 40 years of vegetation standing out behind your house, you probably can’t do it by yourself,” Mendes said. “Some places would need a crew of 10 to clear them out.”

Organizers said they hoped a Hoopa Fire Safe Council (HFSC) could also tackle other fire safety issues, like making sure that hydrants were marked and easy to reach during an emergency.

Jackson said, “[HFSC] could hire people to go around and use weed-eaters around all the hydrants.”

Abbott and Darst said that the WCFSC had helped make a huge difference in safety around Willow Creek by clearing out brush to keep fires from spreading, and insurance rates had dropped in the area.

“People were also really happy to see how beautiful it looked,” Abbott said. “It made a huge difference in the public’s perception.”

Hoopa Volunteer Fire Department Chief Daniel “Duffy” Mott said, “The main concern for me is widening a lot of these driveways.”

Mott said there was one house fire on Dump Road where there were tree branches right above the road and the brush was so thick that none of the Volunteer Fire Department’s engines could reach the home.

Unlike paid firefighters, Hoopa’s volunteers have other jobs and don’t live at the fire station.

They rush to the station when an emergency call comes in, put on their firefighting gear, and head out to where they’re needed as soon as enough volunteers are there to staff a fire engine.

Dale-Anne White, a volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), said, “It’s not just fires. We give medical aid, and we do search and rescues. None of us are paid. We do this for our community.”

There are hundreds of fires in and around the Hoopa Valley each year, and many of them are possible threats to nearby homes.

Mendes said, “Could we get a fire at one end of the valley, with the right conditions, that could make us lose a lot of homes? Yes.”

Darst said, “There’s grant money out there to help, but you’ve got to be willing to match the grant with labor.”

Darst also said that if, for example, the tribe donated the use of their chippers, it would count as so many dollars per day towards matching the grant funds.

Risling said, “The Fire Safe Council offers a lot of opportunity to get things done. We can teach people how to operate the equipment and create jobs in the valley.”

The next meeting of the Hoopa Fire Safe Council is scheduled for Wednesday, March 6, at 7pm in the Neighborhood Facilities (NF) building, and is open to all community members.

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