California fire chief Shana Jones reflects on the unprecedented devastation of this year’s wildfires along with efforts to protect natural resources and keep her community safe
What was the moment you knew this year was different in terms of the disaster that was unfolding in front of you?
After the Valley Fire in 2015, which damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 homes, we thought we wouldn’t see a fire this large and destructive again for the rest of our careers. But it’s only gotten worse. Over the last five years, the CAL FIRE Sonoma Lake Napa Unit (LNU) has experienced an 80 percent increase in fires from the previous five years. Several years of drought, longer summers, and an abundance of dry vegetation have increased our fire activity. At the time of this writing, LNU’s 2020 total burned acres exceeds 475,000 and as a state, more than 4 million acres were burned.
How did the challenges of the pandemic impact your work?
Early in 2020, COVID-19 quickly became a daily topic. CAL FIRE’s Incident Management Teams were asked to assist other state agencies with organizing and mobilizing equipment and resources to deal with the projected increase of sick patients. Like other workplaces, we had to change the way we handled everything from daily interaction in the stations to routine trainings. At the same time, questions about how the department was going to handle large fires logistically in the upcoming peak wildland fire season while adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines added to a list of concerns.
This peak season itself was particularly challenging. Because of the statewide resource drawdown, responders spent 72-96 hours on the front lines without rest — pushing beyond their personal limits.
What inspired you to keep going despite the hardship?
This year has been hard for all of us and I honestly can’t wait to see 2020 in my rearview mirror. What’s kept me going is my team and seeing how everyone continued to step up and help each other. This dedication comes at a personal cost — not only physically but mentally. We work away from our families and sacrifice important moments like birthdays and anniversaries while we’re helping others. It’s also personal for us. Many of my staff grew up locally and live in the affected communities. They fought fires in their own backyards, and for their families and friends. Some have seen their own homes and possessions destroyed.
During one of the fires this year, a staff member let me know she needed to go home to pack her things and would be back in a couple of hours to support our emergency public information call center. She was an evacuee for the third time in the last five years but didn’t think twice about helping others. The frequency and duration of these fires have changed us all in some small way.
What continues to inspire me is the dedication of those who serve others despite their own personal challenges. It’s not in our DNA to give up. This is what we signed up for, but it doesn’t mean much if we don’t all work together.
What needs to be done to prevent and/or minimize the impact of these fires?
We have a long road ahead of us. No one department, agency, NGO, or members of the public can provide all of the work that needs to be done to reduce the threat. We all need to work together, and this has been and will continue to be our focus for the foreseeable future. Throughout the state, fire officials are continuing to focus on fire prevention projects, including vegetation management and fuel reduction projects, to reduce the wildfire risk to surrounding communities.
Another part of fire prevention is education. The public plays a key role in wildfire prevention. Educating people on how to prepare and create defensible space for their property and the community is essential to improving a home’s chance of surviving a wildfire, and protecting the firefighters defending a home. ReadyforWildfire.org is a website that has information and checklists on making a space defensible, preparing for a wildfire, and returning home after an emergency.
It’s important for the public to understand that there will never be enough fire engines or emergency personnel to be at every single home when a disaster happens. Each of us needs to do our part in preparing for a disaster and being ready to go in an emergency. Preparing your homes, having a plan in the event you need to evacuate, and staying aware of and following emergency alert information will help first responders help you in an emergency.
Unit Chief Shana Jones is responsible for overseeing all CAL FIRE functions within Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Colusa, Yolo, and Solano Counties. CAL FIRE is a statewide fire department, serving and safeguarding the people and protecting the resources of California.