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Demonstration Helps Residents Brush Up on Fire Preparedness

State and city officials emphasize the importance of updating insurance and inventory, and creating defensible space on the outside of a home

It’s year-round fire season in California, and authorities urge residents to be proactive in protecting their homes.

Santa Barbara residents have seen their fair share of wildfires recently — with the 2008 Tea Fire and 2009 Jesusita Fire destroying nearly 300 homes between them. Fall is just as dangerous a season for fires with high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.

At the Firescape Garden on Wednesday, Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio and California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner spoke about having an action plan and home inventory.

From an insurance perspective, Poizner said, everyone should go out and update their policies, as any home additions or big purchases should be included. Since he was elected, 4,000 homes have burned down in the state from multiple wildfires. Making an inventory of items in the home will make full, timely reimbursement by insurance companies easier, though residents are reminded to keep the inventory off-site.

“Don’t get burned twice,” Poizner said. “Other than losing a family member, there’s nothing worse than losing your home.”

DiMizio spoke of the “Ready, Set, Go!” preparedness plans for residents, which includes defensible space and fire-resistant building materials, an action plan in case of a fire, and early evacuation. With all those steps, he said, people can have clarity of mind that they’ve done what they can do protect their home and themselves.

Defensible space and using fire-resistant materials aren’t just a good idea — they’re the law, city Fire Marshal Joe Poire said. Particular attention should be paid to openings such as vents and windows, as embers are adept at finding a way inside a structure. Each municipality can make stricter restrictions than the state requirements, as the city has for some foothill areas.

Ann Marx, a wildland specialist with the City Fire Department, explained the root of the defensible space rules, which doesn’t mean removing all vegetation. Instead, plants with low oil content and the ability to retain water are recommended, and suggestions can be found on the department’s Web site.

Defensible space is important to make it safer for firefighters to defend a home, and to help protect a structure if firefighters can’t get there, she said. There aren’t enough resources to put an engine at every house, so “it’s important that your house stands on its own.”

There are four zones, starting closest to the house or structure and moving outward, that work to slow down a fire and lessen flame length. They’re showcased at the Firescape Garden, across the street from Fire Station No. 7 off Mission Ridge Road.

The most important area for defensible space is within 15 feet of the home, where plants should be low-growing and irrigated. Trees are allowed as long as their branches are at least 15 feet away from the house’s eaves, Marx said. “Hardscaping” areas such as pathways also is recommended for that space. Farther from the house, spaced-out shrubs, Mediterranean vegetation and native plants are recommended for zones two, three and four, respectively.

Marx stressed the importance of maintaining the landscaping, as there’s no point to defensible space if there are dead leaves or the like everywhere. She also noted that fire moves 12 times faster uphill, so more space is required for property that is sloped.

She said that from her years of experience in the area, residents don’t consider defensible space or building materials enough. Many homes were built decades ago, but a lot can be done to make them more fire resistant. Some do everything right and save their homes — and some lose them anyway.

“You don’t have a chance if you don’t try,” she said.

The fire department provides information for residents and free defensible space inspections. Free software for home inventory is available through the Insurance Information Network of California.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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