Bookmark and Share

December 2017 Feature of the Month

Yes, It Can Happen Here

As our hearts (and helping hands) go out to friends and family to the south who are fighting yet another group of devastating fires in our state, we are reminded to prepare now for emergencies that might come our way here in Santa Cruz County. Fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami—any of these can happen here.

What would you do if you had to evacuate? To help answer that question we are again sharing the Grab and Go feature from the AARP Bulletin. Even if you don’t have to evacuate, you may be dealing with situations that require sheltering in place and other disaster activities—see below for more information.

We wish you and your loved ones a joyous holiday season and winter. Read on for important tips and resources to help you stay safe!

“Grab and Go,” by Jeff Rossen of NBC News and author of the new survival and fraud-fighting book Rossen to the Rescue.
Article reprinted from the October 2017 AARP Bulletin, Copyright 2017 AARP. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy of Nick Ferrari. Illustration courtesy of Joel Holland

Be sure that everyone in your household has a go bag. Designing and putting them together can be a fun activity to share with your family. Also consider making go bags for your car and at work.

Safely Use Fireplaces and Wood-Burning Stoves

Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are popular for keeping warm and cozy, and by following important tips and rules you can keep safe too.

1. Preventive maintenance: This is crucial!

  • Your fireplace or wood-burning stove should be checked every year, either by yourself if you know what to look for, or a professional.
  • Have your chimney or stovepipe inspected annually and cleaned as needed. Regular inspections are a great way to prevent a fire caused by ash or creosote buildup, a common cause of fireplace and wood-burning stove fires. (Note: creosote can be eliminated by maintaining a big, hot fire instead of a small, smoky, or wet fire, which leads to creosote buildup.)
  • Keep tree branches and leaves at least 15 feet away from the top of the chimney. Install a chimney cap to keep debris and animals out.
  • Even if your fireplace is gas-fueled it needs to be checked.

2. Keep the hearth area clear

  • Combustible material that is too close could easily catch fire. Keep furniture and other items at least 3 feet away from the hearth.

3. Proper equipment use   

  • Use an appropriate fireplace shield (usually metal mesh or glass screens) to catch flying sparks that could ignite or burn holes in the carpet or flooring, curtains, or even your clothing.
  • A non-combustible hearth, such as brick or linoleum, is recommended to have next to the fireplace or stove. Never install carpet directly in front of a fireplace or wood-burning stove as a spark could land on it and start a fire.
  • For wood-burning stoves, always adjust air vents before going to bed and before leaving the house. Many fires related to stoves occur when air vents are forgotten or not monitored.

4. Start the fire properly

  • Check that the damper is open.
  • Never use any kind of accelerant, such as lighter fluid, gasoline, or diesel when lighting a fire inside of the house.
  • You can use crumpled up paper and/or other tinder and a mixture of small wood pieces and larger pieces as the smaller ones start.
  • Do not use charcoal in your fireplace or wood-burning stove. Charcoal is made for outdoor barbecue grills and can also release harmful carbon monoxide into your home.

5. Keep small children away

  • Do not leave small children unattended around open fireplaces or wood-burning stoves for even a few seconds. That’s just enough time for them to put their hand into the fire or on the stove and receive serious burns (which may require an emergency room visit). If they get too close a spark could reach them and cause severe burns and/or ignite clothing.

6. Use the right fuel  

  • Use well-seasoned quality firewood (wood with less water in it). This will help to ensure your fireplace or wood-burning stove burns cleanly and more efficiently. Harder, heavier woods such as oak are best for providing heat.
  • Avoid burning wood that is green or wet. Green or wet wood will produce a lot of smoke and build up creosote, which, as noted above, can cause fires.

7. Install and maintain smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors

  • Make sure you have an adequate number.
  • Test them once a month.

8. Discard ashes safely: Many house fires are caused from incorrect disposal of ashes.

  • Don’t let ashes from previous fires build up in the bottom of your fireplace or your wood stove. Anything more than 1 inch of ash could lead to smokier fires, as it becomes more difficult for oxygen to find its way to the wood.
  • Allow ashes to cool before disposing of them. Place ashes in a tightly covered metal container and keep the ash container at least 10 feet away from your home and other buildings. Never empty ashes directly into a trash can.
  • Douse and saturate ashes with water.
  • Do not place ashes into a paper bag or cardboard box.
  • Note: Be sure your insurance company knows if you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, and notify them if you install one.

Click here for “Burn Wise” tips from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to learn how to save money, reduce air pollution, and protect your health while using your wood-burning appliance.

Space Heater Safety Tips

Portable space heaters can be a convenient source of supplemental heat. Unfortunately, they can pose significant fire and electric shock hazards if not used properly. Here are some tips for keeping you and your loved ones safe:

  • Be sure your space heater has adequate safety features, and that it has the label showing that it is listed by a qualified testing laboratory like UL.
  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels.
  • Inspect heaters for cracked or broken plugs or loose connections before each use. If frayed, worn, or damaged, do not use.
  • Never leave a space heater unattended. Turn it off when you're leaving a room or going to sleep.
  • Keep children and pets away from the heater.
  • Space heaters are only meant to provide supplemental heat and should never be used to warm bedding, cook food, dry clothing, or thaw pipes.
  • Install working smoke alarms on every level of your home and outside all sleeping areas and test them once a month.
  • Proper placement of space heaters is critical. Heaters must be kept at least 3 feet away from anything that can burn, including papers, clothing and rugs. Never place a heater near anything combustible.
  • Keep heaters out of high traffic areas and doorways where they may pose a tripping hazard.
  • Plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet. Do not use an extension cord or power strip, which could overheat and result in a fire. Do not plug any other electrical devices into the same outlet as the heater.
  • Place space heaters on level, flat surfaces. Never place heaters on tables, furniture, or carpet, which can overheat and start a fire.
  • Always unplug and safely store the heater when it is not in use.

Christmas Tree Fire Safety

Christmas tree fires are not common, but when they occur they are often serious and can grow very quickly. Following these guidelines while you pick your tree, set it up, and decorate, can help keep your celebrations merry!

  • Choose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched.
  • Place the tree at least 3 feet away from any heat source, including heat vents, fireplaces, radiators, candles, or lamps. Put it in the coolest location possible. (Having the tree too close to a heat source causes 1 in every 4 tree-related fires.)
  • Cut 1” to 2” off the base of the trunk before placing in the stand, which will allow it to continue to pull moisture into its foliage, and put the tree in water immediately after making the cut.
  • Add water to the tree stand right away after placing the tree, and be sure to add water every day.
  • Make sure your tree is not blocking an exit.

Note: Artificial trees are less flammable than live trees and don’t require water. Look for the label: “Fire Resistant.” (Although the label does not mean the tree cannot catch fire, it is more resistant to catching fire.)

  • Use lights that are approved by a qualified testing organization like UL.
  • Use lights only for their specified purpose. Some are for indoor or outdoor use only.
  • Remove and replace any string of lights that has worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. (Do not attempt to repair!)
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the number of light strands to connect.
  • Do not overload electrical outlets.
  • Never leave a lighted tree unattended. Always turn lights off or unplug them before leaving home or going to bed.
  • Put working smoke alarms on every level of your home, especially inside and outside sleeping areas.
  • Never use lit candles to decorate the tree.

Tip: LED lights produce almost no heat, making them safe to touch and greatly reducing the risk of fire. They are also shatterproof and shock resistant.

After Christmas

Remove your tree immediately after the holidays or when it is dry. (Dry trees are a fire danger and should not be left in the home or garage or placed outside against the house.) Check to see about recycling options.

Take Additional Steps to Prepare for an Emergency!

Stay Informed

Think about multiple ways you can get information.

  • Radio
    • Generally is available when other sources are not
    • Radios can be battery-operated, or even hand-cranked  
    • Most people have car radios
  • TV and social media if you have electricity or a working Internet connection.
  • Emergency alerts
    • Landlines phones throughout the County are automatically registered for alerts.
    • Cell phones and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones (such as through your Internet provider) need to be registered to receive emergency notifications. Smart phone users can also download the Code Red app to stay informed during local emergencies. Visit for more information and to register.

Develop a Disaster Plan

  • For yourself, your family, your organization or company
    • Talk to children about crisis events
    • Don’t forget the pets
  • Practice your plan. Families can make a game night out of it. Or take cell phones away for a day and practice navigating your life without one for eight hours.

Make a Supply Kit

Get Involved and Connected

There are many ways to get involved. Here are a few:

Write Out Phone Numbers

How many phone numbers do you know? Nowadays many of us don’t have phone numbers memorized, even those of close friends and family members. Write out important contact information and put it in your wallet and go bag and make sure your children have their own copy.

Tip: Scan or Photograph Important Documents

Scan or photograph all your important documents and save them on a flash drive. Of course you want to be sure this information is stored safely and securely—your go bag is a good place (if only accessible to you and those you trust). Here are some items to include:

  • bank and credit account information
  • insurance accounts (health, life, auto, etc.), contact information, and policy numbers
  • property information
    • parcel and mortgage info
    • homeowners’ or renters’ insurance
    • photos of your home, contents, and equipment
  • credit card information 
  • passport
  • driver’s license
  • health directives
  • emergency contacts

And be sure to have a safe and secure way to access your passwords!

Be proactive. Do not wait to be told what to do. Prepare in advance and be ready to act.

Explore these and other resources:

                County of Santa Cruz Emergency Survival Guide


Get the whole family involved! Click the images below for resources and information.

Resources in other languages