Fire District’s Craig Jorgens Wants More Spending on Prevention

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(Contributed Photo)
Craig Jorgens.

    Even before thousands of wildfires swept over 1.6 million acres and earned California a dubious place in the history books this summer, long-time Orinda resident Craig Jorgens had his sights squarely fixed on averting such disasters.
    “Fire safety starts with prevention and fuel reduction,” said Jorgens, who is running unopposed for a second four-year term on the Moraga-Orinda Fire District board (MOFD). “I want to prioritize more prevention.”
    The retired businessman talks fast and fervently about the shift he hopes to see in district spending.
    Jorgens, who represents District 5, would like more of MOFD’s $29.7 million budget to go toward taming vegetation, the fuel which can cause sparks to explode into an inferno. To be clear, he’s not advocating cutting spending on suppression, Jorgens said, but rather allocating a greater share of future growth in property tax revenue to prevention.
    The threat is real, he said, noting the expansive watershed just north of Orinda is a “wild jungle” of flammable vegetation that has no pressurized water source.
    If something starts burning, hot, strong winds could fan the flames “and the next thing it finds is Orinda,” Jorgens said.
    In fact, fires already make incursions into the area: in recent years there have been three to five wildfires annually within fire district boundaries.
    In July 2018, flames came dangerously close to five Moraga homes before they were extinguished and last fall, an early-morning fire in that town’s Merrill Drive area forced the evacuation of about 140 homes and burned approximately 60 acres before firefighters halted its advance.
    Orinda has plenty of heavy brush on and around residential lots as well as trees with low-hanging branches that can convey flames to roofs, Jorgens said.
    Although he readily acknowledges homeowners are responsible for minimizing fire hazards on their property, he’d like the district to spend more money helping them with its Wood Chipper Program.
    The free service enables groups of neighbors to pile tree limbs, shrubs and brush by the side of the road, where a district wood chipper will grind them up. Residents then can reclaim the landscaping material or have it hauled away.
    Jorgens not only wants more district residents to know about the program but would like to see the chipper working year-round, instead of about two-thirds of the time. The advantages are two-fold: by each household ridding itself of combustible vegetation, there’s less chance of fire spreading from one home to all the others nearby, he said. And, because multiple households must band together to make a visit more efficient, neighbors become acquainted, Jorgens said. That can prove important if there’s an emergency evacuation because people already will know if there are elderly residents in their midst who might need to be alerted and helped out of the area, he said.
    Jorgens also intends to continue pushing Firewise USA, a national public education campaign that encourages homeowners to band together and work with local fire officials to devise and execute an action plan for fireproofing their properties.
    The program provides a variety of information, including tips on how homeowners can fireproof their property. These include ridding rain gutters of leaves, replacing missing shingles or roof tiles and installing metal mesh screening on vents under the eaves.
    Jorgens credits Fire Chief David Winnacker’s relentless promotion of this self-help approach with inspiring neighborhoods to participate. Before the Chief took the job in December, 2017, no Orinda or Moraga residents belonged; now, the district has 21 Firewise groups ranging in size from about 20 homes to 400, and four more are set to join.
    Organizing Firewise can benefit all those residents who are reading the headlines about wildfires and even can smell the smoke yet still don’t take steps to protect themselves, Jorgens said.
    “It’s not that they don’t care – they don’t know what to do,” he said.
    New technology that Jorgens expects the district to adopt in the next four years also should reduce the risk of conflagrations.
    The district plans to use tiny, low Earth orbit satellites with cameras to detect smoke from fires in the early stages. Stopping the spread right away is key to getting the upper hand, Jorgens said.
    The equipment would calculate the direction the flames are moving and thereby identify the neighborhoods that are threatened, which in turn would trigger an alert. “We’re on the leading edge of this kind of development,” he said.

1 COMMENT

  1. Orinda property tax payers currently contribute $18 million of MOFD’s $27 million in property tax receipts. However, it only costs MOFD $15 million of those taxes to provide the service given to Orinda. The other $3 million is used for service outside of Orinda which, when we formed MOFD, we were told would never happen again. If that $3 million was used for fire prevention efforts in Orinda, we would be much safer. When is that going to happen? When are our MOFD representatives going to stand behind the promises made to the voters in 1997? When is our CIty Council, whose predecessors made those promises going to demand action by MOFD?

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