ATASCADERO — Both residents and City staffers in Atascadero compared fire conditions in northern San Luis Obispo County with the devastated Northern California town of Paradise during an informational meeting on Saturday, May 4.
“I don't think that is a stretch,” Fire Chief Casey Bryson said, when noting the topographical similarities and nature of the urban-rural connection shared by the two communities.
Paradise had a population of approximately 26,000 according to the last census when the 153,000-acre Camp Fire (named for the nearby Camp Creek) tore through the area in 2018.
With just over 30,000 residents, limited escape routes and large property tracts connecting the municipality to wildlands, the City of Atascadero could be in an equally precarious situation if residents don’t take steps now, Bryson said.
He did, however, note that the area is spared the wind-driven fires that race down hills in Santa Barbara to the south.
“Fire is very weather dependent,” he said, recalling that flames destroyed homes and outbuildings around the City on several occasions between 1989 and 2000, “at the moment we’re already flagging properties for [weed] abatement...June 1 is the hard deadline before we cite residents and make those arrangements ourselves.”
Out of the thousands of parcels inside City limits, he added, the City-hired crews only cleared 30 sites themselves last season, mostly for absentee property owners.
“The vast majority of residents really want to know what they can do to stay in compliance and stay safe,” he said.
The four-hour event held in the fourth-floor Atascadero City Hall Council Chambers on May 4 drew from the senior staff stationed at both of the City’s firehouses to explain, encourage, and clarify; with guests watching a short introductory presentation and splitting into four groups.
City of San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Keith Aggson, who started his career with the Atascadero Fire Department, paid a visit to the sit in on the presentations with his old colleagues and gather some ideas. He admired the standalone digital displays where fire personnel were able to tailor powerpoint presentations with each group.
The City of Atascadero is currently working on updates to their own preparedness planning, noted Fire Marshal Tom Peterson, along with the County and City of San Luis Obispo’s Hazard and Emergency Mitigation planning.
While none of the updates are expected to be complete before the next wildfire season is upon the region, he did give residents the benefit of his experience as an inspector and things to watch for in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) zones around the community.
Fire-safe outbuildings being a personal interest of his, he gave direction for gutter clearances, safeguarding of eves from ember infiltration, and fire resistant siding and window options.
Those technology fields have seen significant improvements since most of Atascadero’s housing stock was built, he showed, including faux wood siding made with concrete board, and windows containing gel which dissipates heat entering the building interior.
A digital QR code, for mobile phone users with a reader application (built into most Android systems), takes visitors to the City’s website with downloadable or printable versions of the four information packets from the day. A browser shortcut is opn.to/a/Sc6X1.
In addition to structure hardening, “fuel reduction and vegetation management,” “access and egress,” and quick evacuation are covered in more detail.
Quick tips include clearance of tree branches up to at least three times the height of nearby shrubbery, setbacks with non-flammable materials, and knowing at least (emphasis on at least) two escape routes from a home or property.
“Think outside the box,” Peterson said, “neighbors won’t mind a scramble across the property line through their driveway if the neighborhood is on fire.”