At Monday night’s (June 2) Town Hall meeting, the American Red Cross “Wildfire Stoppers” staff facilitated a discussion with Three Rivers residents, Cal Fire and Tulare County Fire personnel, and Tulare County Sheriff’s deputies with the sole purpose of upgrading disaster preparedness. In the midst of tinder-dry, summer-like conditions, the biggest threat for a local disaster is wildfire.
Sandra Santiago-Pinheiro, Red Cross preparedness specialist, was the main Wildfire Stopper program speaker. She began the presentation with a graphic photo of a view of the apartment building where she and her family lived in Camarillo during a disastrous 1993 fire.
“I experienced that fire when I was a teenager and like everyone else in the neighborhood we were told to evacuate,” Sandra said. “Our first reaction was no way are we leaving our home and everything we own.”
Flames were literally burning within a few feet of the apartment complex, Sandra said. After some near panic moments, it was decided that her mom would evacuate with the children because Sandra’s brother had a chronic medical condition.
“My father stayed behind and fortunately firefighters were able to gain control of the fire and save our home, and no one was injured,” Sandra said. “From that time on, I decided I wanted to work with the Red Cross for my career.”
Sandra then posed the question to the audience: “What would you do if a wildfire was approaching and you were under a mandatory evacuation order?”
Most members of the audience agreed it would be a difficult decision what to grab or to drop everything and leave.
James Seligman, who lives six miles up the South Fork, said rather than become trapped by fire during an attempt to exit on the South Fork road, the only way in or out, it would be better for some residents just to stay put in sanctuaries. His property, he said, would work as a sanctuary because there is good river access.
“That could work in some situations but most people depend on the Red Cross shelters during a disaster,” Sandra said. “Communication is critical so that you know where these centers are located and how to get there.”
Rick Lafferty asked where these centers for Three Rivers are located. Paul Marquez, Cal Fire unit chief, answered that question.
“We don’t know the location of where these centers might be until we establish an incident command and assess current status and fire behavior,” Chief Marquez said. “Some obvious places to use would be the Lions Arena, the Memorial Building, and Three Rivers School.”
Chief Marquez also said that fire work crews recently completed site clean-up and brush removal on the Three Rivers School property. That area is now more fire safe and could potentially be a shelter for livestock from outlying ranches if needed.
Santiago said that Red Cross shelters provide temporary shelter, meals, and medicines.
Red Cross staff provided several flyers that underscored what residents must do to be prepared in rural areas like Three Rivers. Key for Three Rivers residents is to know there is extreme risk and prepare every property by clearing brush and trimming trees at least 100 feet around every structure.
Emergency phone numbers should be posted by every phone.
In Three Rivers, it’s critical to know your neighbors and have their phone numbers nearby too.
“In addition to marking your driveways so we can find you, everyone needs to be notified near where a fire is burning,” Chief Marquez said. “If we knock on your door, we need to know immediately how many homes are in the area and who might need assistance with getting out or moving livestock or pets.”
Sandra continued, “Everyone should have a plan for family members to stay in contact and know what you should take if you are ordered to evacuate. Always have enough food and water for at least three days in the event of an emergency. Sometimes staying and sheltering in place is the best option.”
Katrina Poitras, Red Cross disaster program manager, said her agency is currently forming a Disaster Action Team (DAT) in Visalia.
“We would like start one in Three Rivers too,” Poitras said.
Anyone interested in volunteering for a local DAT may call Katrina at her Fresno office, 455-1000, or email Katrina.Poitas@redcross.org.
Linda Mutch spoke on behalf of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks fire program. She said she is currently the acting fire education specialist and may be contacted at the office number: 565-3703.
“The ignitions on the Bear Hill prescribed burn in Giant Forest have been completed so there will only be minimal smoke,” Mutch said. “With the drought conditions, it is doubtful that the NPS will ignite any more prescribed fire until conditions change.”