Southern California Fire Season 2012: My Early Taste of Fire & the Good Samaritan Law

It is not yet the official beginning of the southern California wildfire season, but I got an early taste of the fire and valuable knowledge about the Good Samaritan Law that I did not know before.

Just a few days ago, as I was walking outside to feed my horse and my goats, I noticed smoke coming from my neighbor’s property. The smoke was almost the height of the house and light grey. I lived through the 2007 southern California wildfire and I know, smoke is the last thing we want at any time or anywhere. My first thought was, “What an odd time to have a barbecue.”

In this case, ‘odd’ meant that our area is utterly drought-stricken. We have not had rain for months and everything is dried out to the limit. We are surrounded by a natural preserve that consists of dry sagebrush, dried downed timber, and even more dried leaves. The slightest spark would ignite a wildfire like no other wildfire season. Since there is only one road out, I know that in the case of a wildfire, there would be nowhere for me or my animals to go.

That only road out is passing by my neighbor’s house. Noticing the smoke, I took a deep breath, walked back into the house to grab my cell phone, and ran over to my neighbor’s house. I did not like what I saw. The smoke was not caused by a barbecue but a car parked right by the front door only two feet away from the house. There was no one around. The car was only 20 feet away from me, showing flames in the engine area, and making exploding noises. Between the car and me was an iron security drive-through gate; the pedestrian gate was locked with a chain.

There is a first time for everything. I had never called 911 on my cell phone before but this was it. The 911 operator was nice and calm. She asked me for the address, my name, and asked me if anyone was in the house. I yelled to the house ‘hello’ several times but there was no answer. After the 911 operator told me that the fire department was on its way, I asked her, if I could climb through the gate to use a water hose to try to keep the car from exploding. By now the flames had reached the wooden window sills of the house and the car engine sounded as if it would explode any second.

It was evident that the 911 operator was not in any position to tell me what to do or not what to do. I learned to understand why she couldn’t after I interviewed one of our local firefighters about the situation.

Here are excerpts from my interview:

Was I overreacting by calling 911?

Firefighter: Absolutely not! Southern California is going to have one of the worst wildfire seasons ever this year. Your rural area is one of the most dangerous wildfire areas that one can live in. Everyone needs to be alert to his or her surrounding and take action. The decision on what to do will be left to the 911 operator. But they can only help if you make the call.

Why couldn’t the 911 operator tell me if I could enter the property?

Firefighter: Was there any life in danger? If someone would have been in the car or injured around the car, under the Good Samaritan Law, you could have entered the property. Since there was no life in danger, you could be sued for trespassing. This was not a decision the operator could have made over the phone.

Why couldn’t the 911 operator tell me if I could try to control the car fire with a water hose that was nearby?

Firefighter: Car engine fires are tricky. Since you could hear explosive sounds, there was definitely heat acting on some parts of the engine. While it takes a tremendous amount of heat to explode the gas tank, water can react with some chemicals of the car engine and cause an explosion. Again, the 911 operator could not make that decision. Since the fire trucks were on their way, it was safer not to use water on the engine.

What about protecting the house that was beginning to catch fire?

Firefighter: The problem here is that you did not know whether anyone was in the house or not. Saving lives is more important than saving property and the Good Samaritan law applies. If you would have caused damage, you might have been liable for that damage even though your intention was good.

It seemed like it took forever for the fire trucks to get here. Why was that?

Firefighter: This is an important issue that we firefighters sometimes have to deal with. We are sometimes called out to a situation that is farther away. Sometimes that situation would have been less important than this fire. While it is important to call 911 in any emergency, calling for the fire department in an unnecessary situation might make the fire truck unavailable where it is needed most. This is why it is extremely important to give the 911 operator the most accurate information possible so they can take the appropriate action.

By the time the firefighters got here, I found out that there were two older people in the house. Should I have done something?

Firefighter: No. The firefighters have trained paramedics here and check out the people’s health vitals. Being a professional is a completely different situation than being a civilian and different laws apply. If you get in the way then the professionals have to deal with one more life.

What should I have done for my neighbors?

Firefighter: The fact that the gate was locked and that there was no way inside without breaking the fence was a problem. If you would have entered the property even with your best intention and despite the Good Samaritan Law, you could still be sued. The best case in taking care of any neighbor is to communicate BEFORE a fire happens on how to enter a property safely and to have that permission beforehand. In this situation, there is a small hole that reaches a manual gate opening mechanism. If you would have been notified by your neighbor that you can use that mechanism, you would have been able to enter the property safely. Unfortunately, not many fire safety instructions discuss a situation with an automatic drive-through gate. The communication among neighbors is a crucial aspect in preparing for the upcoming Southern California Fire Season here.

What could I have done to prevent the fire from spreading?

Firefighter: [Looking at my property:] Your property is excellently fire safe. There is no dry brush around 100 feet of the house. You turned the sprinklers on closest to your neighbor’s property for any dry leaves on the ground. That was also good. If you look at the direction of how the eucalyptus and pine trees are growing, you can see that the wind generally blows northeast away from your neighbor’s house. You want to take the general wind direction into consideration when dealing with a fire. You can watch out for any embers or ashes flying and notice the direction of the wind. If the tall eucalyptus trees catch on fire, you have to get yourself and your animals out. You would not be able to survive the heat that they would produce.

Is there anything that I can do about the house?

Firefighter: As long as the eucalyptus trees do not catch fire, the best thing to do while your neighbor’s house is in danger is to take a water hose and go around your house. Look under the eaves of the roof and make sure that no embers can get into the house and under the roof. This is the most dangerous and vulnerable part of the house.

What else should I do on the property in order to prepare for the wildfire season?

Firefighter: There are three things that I see that you can do in addition to what you have already done. First, trimming the eucalyptus tree that is close to the electricity and phone line would be a good idea. You can check with your electricity company and see if they will take care of it but do not leave it up to them. During our dry and hot Santa Ana winds, the branches can blow into the lines and start a fire. The Santa Ana winds will blow into a different direction than the trees are growing now, so keep that in mind. Second, even though your roof is made out of composite, which is fire saver than other roofs, the dried leaves that have collected on the roof and in the rain gutters can cause a problem during a fire. Make sure you clean them out regularly. Third, there are two trees that are closer than 10 to 12 feet to the house. Cut back the branches or take out the trees if you do not need them. You want to keep any branches away from the house.

Do you have any other final advice?

Firefighter: Yes. I understand that people want to do everything they can during a fire. But they have to remember that life always comes before property. Property can be replaced, lives cannot. We firefighters cannot save an area if we are busy saving lives. We can do our job best, if you do your job, taking care of your life and the life of others.

More from Jasmine Thomas:

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