Crews take aim at roadside fires with public education campaign

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - At least three recent wildfires apparently started right off the lanes of Interstate 5, and those are exactly the types of blazes that officials hope the public will help prevent.

The U.S. Forest Service is taking the lead on a new campaign, "One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire."

"It's all about being safe," Forest Service fire prevention technician Shannon Solis told Eyewitness News. She's with the Sequoia National Forest, based in Lake Isabella.

"There's lots of stuff people can to do ensure that we don't have any sparks," Solis said.

Tuesday, two fires apparently started near the southbound lanes of I-5 and raced up the dry hillsides. They merged into one blaze that crews called the Water Fire.

Last Friday, crews said the Rancho Fire in nearly the same area had also started near the freeway.

Solis said sparks from vehicles are a very big concern.

"It's within the top two causes of all the fires that we have throughout California that are roadside starts," she said.

Forest Service officials list the biggest dangers:

  • trailer tow chains that drag on the ground
  • anything under a car that hits the pavement
  • tires that can throw sparks

Officials tell drivers to check tire pressure, because an exposed wheel rim can cause sparks.

They also warn that bad brakes can lead to metal grinding. And, even where a driver parks can be a danger.

"Vehicles parked too closely to vegetation start fires," a bulletin says.

But, vehicles are part of the equation. The Forest Service is also out with warnings about other types of equipment, like lawn care equipment.

"Make sure that you use the proper tools when you're clearing weeds around your house," Solis said. "Use string for your Weed eaters, and not the metal blades."

The bulletin also warns homeowners to remove rocks before using a lawn mower.

And, they say chain saws and other equipment should have an "approved spark arrestor." These officials also remind homeowners to do cutting, welding or grinding on a "paved enclosed area."

With the big West Fire near Tehachapi several years ago, two men cutting a steel pipe were blamed for starting the blaze. That fire destroyed 23 homes and burned more than 1,600 acres.

Solis said the Forest Service hopes to get the homeowner warnings into places like hardware and home improvement stores.

They urged homeowners to have water or a fire extinguisher around when they use equipment that might cause sparks. The campaign also suggests that drivers keep a fire extinguisher in their car or truck.

Back off I-5, some residents asked if highway crews could do more to remove grass and weeds along the freeway shoulders.

"I can actually say I see Caltrans out there doing hazard reduction," Solis said. "I see them all the time in the Kern Canyon. She had checked on a roadside fire in the canyon on Highway 178 Wednesday, and luckily it was in an area surrounded by rocks, it didn't spread.

But, Solis said there are also drawbacks to cutting vegetation along the highways.

"I know that they do go out, they try to clear a lot of the grass along to where it's short," she said. "But if you get rid of everything, then you're going to be creating dust."

She said wind can blow that around, and that's another type of hazard.

It's the fire hazard from sparks that the new message takes aim at.

"The 'One Less Spark, One Less Wildfire' campaign is designed to provide constant reminders during the fire season to reduce the numbers of human-caused vehicle and equipment wildfires throughout the state," a Forest Service website says.

Solis notes this year the state is very dry, adding to the dangers. And, she predicts this fire season will be a long one. Then, there's the cost when a wild fire starts.

"It's millions of dollars any time you get air tankers, any type of air craft, and all of our crews," she said.

More than that, there's the danger to residents and fire crews. That's why they hope for more help from the public with their new campaign, And Solis said it goes back to their original message.

"Remember," she said. "Only you can prevent wildfires."