When it comes to fire safety, most children learn three words that will stick with them for the rest of their young lives: Stop, drop and roll. For kids growing up in California today, as wildfires set new records year after year, those words may be more important than they’ve been for any generation before.
The urgency was palpable at the Oakland Fire Department’s annual fire safety day, held at downtown’s Lakeside Park Garden Center last week. More than 200 children ranging from pre-kindergarten through second grade learned how to prevent and respond to fires.
“Even though they’re small, they have a big voice when it comes to sharing information,” said Oakland Fire Department program analyst Anette Boulware.
A big banner at the front of the center spelled out the main lesson of the day: “Look. Listen. Learn.” Smokey the Bear helped teach the children not to play with matches. Fire inspector Justin Walker taught the kids how to respond to a smoke detector’s beep. And when Assistant fire marshal Enrique Orduña called out “Ready, Set, Go!,” the children dropped onto gym mats with their hands covering their faces, crawled through nylon tubes, and ran over to a decoy window bar they had to kick open with their feet to escape.
“We wanted them to be as interactive as possible,” Orduña said. “We don’t just want them sitting and listening, we wanted them to be engaged and interacting so they can relate to the experience.”
Last year, more than 1,300,000 fires were reported in the United States. The National Fire Prevention Association estimates those fires caused at least 3,400 civilian deaths, 14,000 civilian injuries, and $23 billion in property damage—including a $10 billion loss due to wildfires in Northern California alone.
California experienced its most destructive and deadliest season of wildfires in 2017, according to Cal Fire, the state agency responsible for protecting California’s natural resources from fire. More than 9,000 fires burned across more than 1.2 million acres.
The most destructive fire, the Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma Counties, burned more than 5,000 structures and killed 22 people. The Thomas Fire, which started in December 2017, blazed across more than 280,000 acres of land in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It ranks as the second largest wildfire ever recorded in California.
In 2018, more than 1.3 million acres have already been scorched in more than 6,300 fires. The July 27 Mendocino Complex Fire of Colusa, Glenn, Lake and Mendocino counties currently ranks as the largest wildfire ever recorded in California, burning more than 400,000 acres.
The July 23 Carr Fire of Shasta and Trinity counties currently ranks as the sixth most destructive California wildfire on record. The blaze, which was caused by the mechanical failure of a vehicle, burned more than 200,000 acres and 1,600 structures. It also killed seven people.
UC Berkeley forestry specialist William Stewart said that dry conditions and erratic winds set the stage for wildfires, which can be ignited by people using machinery, throwing a cigarette out a window, or even from electrical sparks.
“There are 40 million Californians,” he said, “and a lot can actually make it spark somewhere.”
At last week’s fire safety training, Oakland Fire Department vegetation management supervisor Vincent Crudele and fire inspector Travis Hansen walked children through the Fire Safety House, a trailer set up to show kids exactly what to do in the event of fire.
Kids sat on a bench in the house’s “living room” and watched as synthetic smoke traveled up the walls, spread along the ceiling, and filled the air. They listened as the smoke detectors began to sound and flash, and Crudele had them stay calm as the detectors signaled that help was on the way. After the children “escaped” back into daylight with the help of another firefighter, their expressions of panic turned to smiles and relief.
“The importance of this exposure for children is unmeasurable,” Crudele said. “This is to learn what you can do under stress and fear, even as a child, to survive.”
Dr. Herbert Guice Christian Academy pre-kindergarten teacher Shelia Mack, whose students spent the day at the event, agreed. “This is… the impressionable period for them to learn. As they grow up into adults, they will remember,” she said.
According to the National Park Service, 90 percent of wildfires are caused by people, young and old. Cal Fire deputy chief Scott McLean said education was the best way to prevent such fires.
“We constantly have to work on it,” said McLean.
The Oakland Fire Department conducts over 450 events annually, including school visits, fire station visits, fire safety workshops, fire safety fairs and events for youth.
Oakland’s fire safety day was held as part of National Fire Prevention week. Sponsors of the event included Gazzali’s Supermarket, BAY EMT, Oakland Police Department, Golden State Warriors, Oakland Black Firefighters Association and Walmart.