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Preventing Fires Instead of Fighting Them

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Three things you can do to help prevent wildfires: be vigilant, be ready and be careful.

Smokey Bear is right: Only you can prevent wildfires. Even though most people think of wildfires as usually being started by arsonists, many wildfires in Southern California are caused by ordinary people. Either way, since humans cause these fires, we can also prevent them.

Without extreme wind conditions like during Red Flag Warnings, most fires are quickly contained as soon as they start. George Ewan, wildland fire defense planner for Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) estimates that 99% of the fires starting along roadsides, for example, are quickly contained with a minimum of damage and acreage burned. However, it’s those few times when a spark is fanned by strong Santa Ana winds that cause the catastrophic wildfires that devastate wilderness habitats and nearby neighborhoods.


Winds of up to 50 mph with gusts up to 85 mph from a Santa Ana wind event paired with dry conditions to intensify the arson-caused 2007 Santiago Fire, which spread more than 3 miles in just the first 20 minutes. These extreme fires are frequently started by arsonists, who know they can do the most damage during a Red Flag fire alert. But some accidental fires start during Red Flag conditions too – the 2008 Freeway Complex fire in Riverside County began when a car’s catalytic converter burst and set off a blaze that burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed or damaged nearly 400 homes.

Fortunately, with both malicious and accidental fires, there are three ways that everyone can help prevent them:

Be Vigilant: Especially during strong winds, be on the constant lookout for suspicious activity. Join a Fire Watch in your community, such as the Orange County Fire Watch Network. During Red Flag Warnings, trained Fire Watch volunteers are stationed in fire-prone areas around the wildlands. These volunteers support OCFA and protect their communities by reporting dangerous or hazardous activities, and they help deter arsonists by being visible in high-risk areas and on constant alert. 

Be Ready: Did you know that flying embers are the leading cause of structural damage in a wildfire, and that flying embers can travel up to a mile ahead of a fire? While Orange County is fortunate to have protected natural wildlands so close to where people live, that proximity means that fires started in urban areas can spread quickly to wildlands, and vice versa. The most important thing an individual can do to protect their property is to “fire harden” their home. OCFA offers a Home Assessment Program, where homeowners can receive a free analysis of their home’s fire risk.

Be Careful: Most fires, such as the Freeway Complex Fire and Santiago Fire, are started along roadways, often accidentally. Lit cigarettes, dragging tow chains, and poorly maintained catalytic converters can all send sparks into tinder-dry roadside plants. Keep your car engine in tune to help avoid catalytic converter explosions, and never pull your car over on top of dry grass. Make sure tow chains are off the ground and never, ever throw a cigarette out of a car window.

The National Wildlife Federation says that “fire season” is getting longer everywhere, as snow melts earlier and summer heats up faster. Wildfires are also happening more often than the shrub-land habitats of Southern California can handle. Fires serve a valuable purpose in the local ecosystem, but instead of natural fires happening every 70-100 years, humans are causing major devastating fires every 7-10 years.  

The more often these habitats burn, the more likely they are to be taken over by flammable weeds, which in turn leads to more frequent fires.  These conditions are why reducing fire ignitions is a major focus for OCFA as well as land owners and management partners such as Irvine Ranch Conservancy.  The key to preventing wildfires is to make sure they never start.

Whether it’s through making homes more fire resistant, participating in community Fire Watch, or by being on high alert during Red Flag Warnings, only you can prevent wildfires. For more information on wildfire prevention, visit www.ReadySetGoOC.org. To sign up for Fire Watch training, visit http://www.LetsGoOutside.org/volunteer