Emergency Information: What to do when there’s a fire

If there is a fire on your property, immediately call 911.

If you call in an emergency from a cell phone: Rather than dialing 911, it is much better to call directly to the Sonoma County Dispatch at 707.576-1371.

Be prepared to give specific information about your location, more than the address. For example, Mr. Smith would say “I am located on Niestrath Road, it’s the Smith Ranch.” Insist that the dispatcher make this information available to the fire department.

Fire Preparation

Here are some of the most important things you should do to prepare for the long dry fire season. Firefighting resources are spread thin in fire season. By educating yourself and preparing your property BEFORE the wildfire, you become your home’s most important defender. Creating defensible space and doing some pre-fire planning will play a far more important role in your home’s survival than what firefighters can do to when the fire is here.

Defensible Space is Crucial

California Public Resource Code 4291 demands a 100’ defensible space radius; homes with 100’ of defensible space are far more likely to survive a fire than those without. Equally importantly, in recent years too many wildland firefighters have died while assigned to protect homes with inadequate defensible space. Inadequate defensible space is reason enough for firefighters to choose not to attempt to defend your home in a wildfire. Having 100’ of defensible space clearance will:

  • Help protect your home and property
  • Increase safety for firefighters and your family
  • Help keep a fire that starts in your home from spreading into the wildland

Defensible space does not mean moonscape. It simply means that you have limbed up trees, eliminated the “ladder fuels” that allow fire to climb from the ground up into the tree tops, removed dead plant materials, and separated trees and shrubs so that fire can’t jump from one to another straight to your home. Most structure loss in wildland fires is caused by embers and fire brands falling on flammable items & plants near structures, smoldering and slowly building to ignite the structure itself. Much of this loss is preventable if homeowners take care to remove all flammable items from a 10’ to 30’ radius from the structure. We tend to think of our homes bursting into flame from the heat of a fire, but it is far more likely that something very small and seemingly insignificant will be the cause of home loss. To learn about defensible space, download Living with Fire in Sonoma County www.firesafesonoma.org or call the VFD for a free copy.

Fire Prevention around the Home

Many wildland fires start as structure fires. Keep your family, your property, and your neighborhood safe by taking care of basic fire safety tasks.

The Basics

Make sure you have 100’ of defensible space. Follow the links or call for more information.

Mow around living areas, but never use lawn mowers, weed eaters, or chainsaws during the heat of the day. Make sure all gas-powered tools have spark arresters. Use extreme care when refueling gas tools and keep a fire extinguisher in your tool bucket. Every year, homeowners doing the right thing at the wrong time cause many of Sonoma County’s wildland fires.

Move firewood and other combustibles 30’ out from your structures.

Install smoke detectors on every level of your home, and check the batteries now, and when daylight savings time begins and ends. In the U.S., on average, 3500 people per year die in structure fires, 75% of them in homes without a working smoke detector.

Have fire extinguishers readily available in your home, and make sure family members know how to use them. Check extinguishers to make sure they have a full charge.

Inspect chimneys and stovepipes at least twice a year, and make sure they are equipped with spark arresters. Wait until the first good wet days of autumn before lighting up your stove. Do not dump ashes from stoves, fireplaces, or barbecues outside if there is the remotest chance that there could be hot embers lingering, even if it is cool and damp on the day you dump them. Embers can stay hot in ash for a very long time, igniting fires several days after ashes have been deposited.

During the dry season be very careful with barbecues. Make sure charcoal BBQs are in very clear areas, never leave them hot, and if it is a hot, dry, or windy day, please cook some other way.

Be relentless in reminding others—especially kids, workers, and visitors who may not understand life in an extremely fire prone area—about fire risks posed by cigarettes, parking in high grass, etc.

Make sure that your address is easily visible so emergency responders can find your house.

Water Sources

Call the VFD for information about what is best for us to hook up.

Can the VFD access your water source? If you are unsure, or planning to upgrade or create a new water system, call us. Ideally you should have:

At least 2,500 gallons of water in reserve at all times for firefighter use; more is better. Have a hydrant available near the house, and mark it with a blue reflector.

Equip your tank or hydrant with at least a 2-1/2” valve with male National Standard Fire Thread, located within 15' of a place where a fire truck can park.

Bury all of your water lines. Even one foot of exposed, burned line will shut off your water supply.

Preparedness and Planning

It is extremely difficult to think clearly during an emergency. The more you can prepare yourself, the better you will fare in a crisis.

Collect the things you will need in case of wildfire and/or evacuation and put them in a container, ready to go. Plastic garbage cans with handles work well; be sure your “Grab and Go Kit” isn’t too heavy to move or too big to fit in your car. Make a list of things you would want to save from your home, given time. Prioritize items and plan how much you will be able to transport. Paste a list of crucial items to the lid of your Grab and Go kit.

Your Grab and Go Kit

For each family member, have a bundle of clothes appropriate for a fire disaster ready and accessible. Avoid any synthetic fabrics and include: heavy cotton pants, sturdy boots, a long-sleeved shirt and a heavy cotton jacket, heavy work gloves, large bandanas, a hood or a hat and goggles or glasses. Include bottles of water in your clothing bundles and keep several gallons of water in your car.

Also consider: Items you might need if you are forced to be away from home for a several days. First aid kit and medications (rotate frequently); Flashlight and batteries; Change of clothes for 3+ days; toilet paper and personal hygiene items; phone numbers, copies of important documents (see below); credit card, cash, or traveler’s checks.

Buy Yourself a Scanner

With a scanner you can tune into firefighting agencies to listen for information. Knowing where a fire is or may be heading could be vital to your survival. You can purchase a scanner from electronics stores such as Radio Shack, and you don’t need a fancy model. Call the VFD to get appropriate channels. Highly recommended!

Discuss Scenarios with Your Family

Where will your kids go? What if you aren’t together? Have a plan, and choose a few out-of-state phone numbers where separated families can call to leave messages and check in.


Have leashes and/or carriers for all of your animals. If possible, evacuate animals early, and have a plan for where to take them.

Have Some Fire Drills

Follow the links to create drills for emergency safety (FEMA is great for this), as well as for practicing some of the things you might do to protect your home before evacuating.

Make a Paper Trail

A devastating wildfire will turn your life upside down, especially if your home is lost. Consider a safe deposit box for original documents or a fireproof home safe. Make copies for your Grab-and-Go kit, and stash copies with close friends or family. Include:

  • Copies of driver’s license, passport, social security card.
  • Medical directives and records.
  • Bank account numbers, credit card numbers, loan agreements, and bank contacts.
  • Insurance policies and inventory of household goods.
  • Wills, contracts, deeds, stocks, and bonds.
  • Important phone numbers.
  • Family records (birth, marriage, and death certificates).
  • Court papers.
  • Past three years of tax records.
  • Scan important and favorite photos to a CD for safekeeping.
  • Computer backups.

When the Fire Comes

Due to steep slopes and or fuel load, many of the homes in our neighborhood are in dangerous spots. For most of us the safest option in the event of a wildfire is to evacuate. However, if the fire traps you and you don’t have a safe evacuation route, it may be safer to stay in the home than to get in your car. Evacuation is the best option, but be prepared for either eventuality. In major fires, most deaths occur when people are in their cars attempting a late escape. Evacuate immediately if asked, and understand that in extreme fire conditions, walls of flame may reach 200 feet, and move at speeds of over 60 MPH. Your garden hose won’t save you or your home in conditions like that. YOU are way more important than your stuff.

If You Have Time to Prepare for the Fire

Get your Grab and Go kit: gather emergency items and tools and change into heavy clothing and boots.

Gather & confine pets in carriers or on-leash, before they panic & hide. Secure them inside house, give them water.

Park your car so it is out of the way for firefighting vehicles, in a vegetation-clear area, and pointed in the direction you need to go to escape. Put items you want to take inside, roll up windows and shut the doors. Leave keys in the ignition and cars unlocked.

Top off your water tank.

Close all windows, skylights, doors, & pet doors. Close damper on stovepipe. Cover attic vent fans (heavy aluminum foil, well secured, would work in a pinch).

Fill bathtub, sinks, barrels, garbage cans, & buckets with water.

Save water for when you really need it. Unless you have a really tremendous water supply, don’t use much water wetting down your house or roof in advance of the fire.

Windows: Remove light weight curtains. If you have metal blinds, close them tight. Move furniture & rugs away from windows.

Turn off propane at main tank. If you have portable tanks, move them 30’ or more from structure.

Move all flammable substances away from the house: Gas cans, propane cylinders (don’t forget the barbeque). Make sure they are clearly visible to firefighters and away from vegetation. You can (carefully!) add gas to your car’s gas tank.

Move everything that can burn inside or away from the structure: Patio furniture, door mats, dog beds, etc.

Place ladder against roof to give firefighters fast access.

Gather tools for fighting stray embers & flare-ups, distribute around house:

  • hoses with spray nozzles, hooked up & turned on
  • fire extinguishers
  • shovels, rakes, hoes, etc.
  • wet towels in barrels of water

Remember to drink lots of water as you work. It’ll be hot. Don’t become a medical emergency!


DO NOT wait too long to leave. We'll say it again: In major fires, most deaths occur when people are in their cars attempting a late escape. Evacuate immediately if asked. YOU are way more important than your stuff.

Leave house unlocked so firefighters can get inside if necessary. Leave lights on so house is visible in smoke or darkness.

Drive cautiously as you leave!!! Your adrenaline will be pumping, but remember that as you go out, firefighters may be attempting to come in, and there will be lots of other panicked people driving on our narrow, dangerous dirt roads.

Know where you’re going. Know where the fire is before you leave and have a clear and safe exit route and destination in mind. If roads are closed, head for open spaces away from trees. Don’t block the road and be prepared to meet large emergency vehicles.

Turn on headlights. If fire’s near, put windows up, close vents.

If trapped by flames, stay in car. Try to find place away from trees. Turn off ignition, close windows and vents. Cover yourself with a heavy wool blanket or jacket and get down low on the floor. Gas tanks rarely explode; your chances are better in the vehicle.

If on foot and trapped by flames: look for ditch, swale, creek bed, any low place. Get down, cover yourself with heavy blanket or jacket until flames pass. If near any pools, ponds, or running creeks: get into water, wet that heavy blanket or jacket, cover your head, & wait.

If You Must Shelter in Place

If you can safely evacuate, do so. If you cannot safely evacuate, you will probably be safer in your home than in your car. You need to be prepared to shelter in place, both physically and psychologically. DEFENSIBLE SPACE IS CRUCIAL!

Fill everything you can with water in case you lose your water in the fire. Use water in tubs to soak fabrics that can be used to beat out embers and flare-ups. Save water for when you really need it, don’t use much water wetting down your house or roof in advance of the fire.

When the fire gets close, inside is far safer than outside. Don’t get trapped outside. Make sure the house is closed up tight but unlocked. As the fire approaches, it will be very windy, hot, noisy and terrifying, but the most powerful part of the fire front will pass by fairly quickly, within a few minutes. Constantly patrol inside the house so that you know if a fire is starting somewhere. If you can put it out with extinguishers or water do so. If not, close off that section of the house and be prepared to get back outside when the smoke and heat in the house make it impossible to stay any longer.

After Firestorm Has Passed

Carefully check entire building inside and out for embers and smoldering.

Ember control is critical! Hunt for them in every possible place. Use hoses & wet towels to extinguish. If low on water, remember alternate sources. If you have a conventional water heater, attach hose to drain for extra water. If you have hot tub or swimming pool, pump it out.

Check attic and crawl spaces for chance that embers got in vents.

Keep windows & doors closed.

Be alert for next 12 hours for hot spots, or embers that blow in fresh.


Internet Information:

The web is a great source of information about planning for fire and other emergencies, defensible space and fire safe building techniques. Check out these links:

Fort Ross VFD: www.frvfd.org : Lots of information and links

Fire Safe Sonoma: www.firesafesonoma.org Download “Living with Fire in Sonoma County,” for all you need to know to create defensible space.

Firewise: www.firewise.org . Highly recommended video: “Wildfire: Preventing Home Ignitions” from the “Firewise you can use” section

California Fire Safe Council:www.firesafecouncil.org

Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov

CAL FIRE (FormerlyCalifornia Department of Forestry): www.fire.ca.gov .

Insurance Information Network of California: http://www.iinc.org


Fort Ross Volunteer Fire Department

Feel free to call your volunteers with questions about anything. We are happy to help you, or to put you in touch with someone who can.

!!! In An Emergency Call 911. From Cell Phones, call 576-1371 !!!

Steve Ginesi: The Chief 847-3337 292-3473 Gualala Ranch
Alan Kraus: Asst. Chief
632-5819 953-1890 Blue Jay Ridge
John Lievore: Captain 847-3659 889-7568 Gualala Ranch
Daniel Schoenfeld: Captain 847-3687 483-2502 Seaview Ranch
Charles Hope: Captain 632-5936 N/A Fort Ross Rd.
Caerleon Safford:
Captain, Prevention
847-3659 206-5467 Gualala Ranch



Pole Mountain Lookout: 632-4143 — Call the lookout if you are starting a barbecue that might be seen from the tower, or for information. Keep it brief, and know that the lookouts will be very busy during an emergency.

 Information about previously reported emergency / fires in progress: Call the Sonoma County Dispatch at 576-1371 or CAL FIRE at 967-4207. Remember, though, that the phones will quickly go out during a fire or natural disaster. Get a scanner!

In the event of a disaster, the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Services maintains a line to help disaster victims and their families. 565-3856