Summers in the eastern foothills of Morgan Hill grow blazing hot. Couple the heat and dry winds with four years of drought, and the 500-plus hillside homes located here sit perched like ready tinderboxes.
In 1985, when it seemed the entire state was on fire, our Jackson Oaks neighborhood was in crisis mode. Local fire teams were fanned out fighting critical Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County fires just as the dry hills east of our development began to blaze. Watching the rolling smoke billow into the sky was terrifying.
A small canyon stood between our homes and devastation by the fire. If flames jumped the canyon, evacuation orders would swiftly follow.
At our home, the family station wagon was loaded and ready to go. Even after convincing our then five- and nine-year old daughters that they couldn’t bring every toy that had ever crossed their path, we still had room for so few possessions. Photo albums,clothing, a few mementos, our pets. And our family of four.
We waited through the night by the phone for the call to come. No Internet, no cellphones in those days; instead we relied on a simple system called a “phone tree.” Our landline phones rang throughout the night as neighbors called one another, anxious for news.
We escaped the fire that year. The canyon held the line, the fires were eventually extinguished, and life went on as before.
Fast forward 30 years when local fire safety personnel came to our Jackson Oaks clubhouse to speak to residents about fire safety. They brought renewed awareness of fire danger to our neighborhood along with new, unfamiliar words: “Wildland Urban Interface,” “fuel ladders,” “Firewise.” And a terrifying night from three decades ago flashed through my mind.
Our commitment to become Firewise began by forming a small team of homeowners that hashed out some ideas with Dwight Good, Morgan Hill’s Fire Marshal. Were we ready to jump on board and learn the ropes on how to better prepare our hillside community when the inevitable happens?
We started by attending meetings throughout the county. We collected names and felt our way along the layers of government, companies and private entities that might offer assistance.
Our launch was in February when we entered the State Farm sponsored 2016 Wildfire Community Preparedness Award contest. We submitted an entry in the Fuel Reduction category, went on our community’s social media site and shamelessly begged, pleaded and cajoled residents to vote. By the deadline, we had gathered 692 votes for the Jackson Oaks project (we even got a couple of votes from our neighboring Gilroy fire officials!), and we were awarded a $500 check from State Farm.
With that initial nest egg, in mid-April we hosted an “Author’s Night” and booked Oakland resident, Dr. Robert Sieben, who visited our clubhouse to speak to residents. A passionate proponent of wildfire prevention and safety, Dr. Sieben brought autographed copies of his book, which were distributed to attending homeowners. We also had a short presentation by Joe English, Project Coordinator of Santa Clara County’s FireSafe Council who discussed with residents the Chipping Program, one of the projects slated for May as part of our Fuel Reduction program.
The last Saturday in April (2016), Fire Management Consultant Carol Rice gave a talk that incorporated a slide show presentation including images within the Jackson Oaks development. Carol had dozens of great tips for homeowners, and attendees came away with information ranging from landscaping advice to simple modifications to our homes, all geared toward raising the community’s level of safety from the ravages of wildfire.
Carla Ruigh, South County’s Area Manager for FireSafe, kicked off the last April event with more information about the Chipping Program. Her talk dove-tailed perfectly with Carol’s. We concluded with a pizza lunch for everyone.
More events are planned. In May of 2016, we’ll do community outreach to help some special needs homeowners clear their property of overgrown vegetation. Neighborhood volunteers will gather at the home of two long-time Jackson Oaks residents to lend a hand in clearing overgrown brush, resulting in a more defensible space condition.
Shortly, we’ll be sending a newsletter to our 500 residents with information on the FireSafe Council’s Chipping Program that we have planned for the end of May.
This fall, we have another presentation in the works – a landscape architect who will talk to residents about drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants. Fall in California is a great time to plant – no lengthy hard freezes to be concerned with here, giving plants time to take hold before the hot summer temperatures return.
That question we asked ourselves a few short months ago? About our readiness to jump on board and learn more about the threat of wildfire, present educational events, reduce our fuel load and better equip homeowners in preparing their homes for the “not ‘if’ but ‘when’” eventuality of wildfire?
The answer today seems simple: We are ready!
Editor's note: Jackson Oaks is Santa Clara County's first Firewise Community.