By Matthew Rodriguez
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
As a child, Chad Augustin dreamed of helping people while also riding on the side of a truck as a profession.
“I always knew that I wanted to do something to help,” the now 48-year-old Augustin said. “When I was a little kid I either wanted to be a firefighter or a garbage collector.”
Augustin chose the former, leading to an over 20-year career as a firefighter. A year after the controversial retirement of Fire Chief Bertral Washington, Augustin was hired to replace him.
With a fire season that experts said they believe will be the most devastating, Augustin and the Pasadena Fire Department hope to educate residents on how to adequately prepare for the next few months.
What are your concerns for this upcoming fire season?
We’re now on track to have the third year in a row of the worst fire season in California history. And every year we say it can’t get any worse. This year to date, we’re at around 6,800 wildfires in California and about 1.6 million acres burned. If you look in Northern California right now, it’s devastating. You have these fires that are wiping out entire communities. This is the 11th driest year in the last 127 years.
It is several factors, but you can narrow it down to drought conditions, increasing temperatures, and then with fuel moisture so incredibly low because of the heat and drought conditions, it’s just a recipe for disaster.
What is the fire department doing to prevent a major wildfire?
First and foremost is educating the community. We recognize that 161 firefighters can’t do it by ourselves. Through that education, we’re taking our firefighters plus 141,000 or so community members to make this community safer.
We do 4,000 hazardous vegetation inspections a year in our high-hazard areas. We’re walking properties, talking to homeowners, really trying to educate them, making sure they have defensible space, making sure that their shop is in order so that if a fire comes through that their residence has a chance of not being burned down and that we can defend it.
We have great mutual aid agreements and automatic aid agreements in this area of LA County. We do annual training on the latest wildland firefighting techniques, not just with ourselves but with all of our partner agencies so that when we respond, we’re all working together and we’re well-trained together.
I would say equally important or more important is we’re doing a lot of community education.
You need to have a go bag to be self-sufficient for 24 to 72 hours. You need to have an evacuation route that’s well defined for your family. The Pasadena Fire Department is working with the community in the event of a big fire or any big incident so we’re better equipped.
What is the potential for a major wildfire in the Pasadena area?
We only have to look at history. We’ve had multiple fires in Southern California in our neighborhoods or neighboring jurisdictions that have come close to us even in the past few years.
So, historically, Northern California burns early in the fire season, and in the fall with the Santa Ana winds, Southern California burns.
More and more, there really is no fire season. It’s year-round. We just have heightened activity and slightly less activity. We recognize, especially with the drought and the fuel moisture in bushes and trees, that there is a substantial risk this year.
Where are the high-risk areas in Pasadena?
When I came here, my first priority was the west side, specifically Linda Vista, the area around the Rose Bowl and above the Rose Bowl. Coming from Northern California, that’s my version of Oakland Hills — that fire was in the early 1990s. It’s very similar here for us. You have up-sloping terrain and narrow roads. You have limited means of access and egress. You have lots of homes that are within the hillsides with trees and brush. We partner with homeowners to make them as safe as possible. We’ve been working for the last few months on an evacuation plan for that side that we expect to have done by the end of this year. That’s probably my top priority for at least this year.
Can you explain red flag days? What should residents expect during red flag days?
They are triggered when your temperatures are above a certain number with your humidities below a certain number. What we’re saying is that it’s really hot and really dry. Frequently, when we add wind conditions it means that your risk of a fire or a fire that starts small and spreads is substantial on those days.
In Pasadena, just because it’s a red flag day, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to trigger a notification. But if we do, there are certain streets where it will trigger no parking (zones). We recognize that that’s a major inconvenience for our residents, so we don’t want to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary. But what we also want to do is make sure that, if there is a fire, we can get our department fire engines and resources in there. If we have narrow streets that are congested with parked cars and we can’t get to a fire, that’s a problem.
We’re going to use every bit of data and technology possible to make good, informed decisions so that if we are inconveniencing our residents, it’s for the utmost regard to safety.
What are small ways residents can help the fire department?
There are two things you can do. We talked about one, and that’s having a plan, having your go bag and your evacuation route. The other is looking at your house. It’s simple things like “do I have a tree that’s near a roadway with branches that hang over and make it difficult for a fire engine to get down the road or get down my driveway? Do I have a tree in my front yard with branches that hang over my roof, which could cause a fire to spread? Do I have high combustible, either shrubs or other vegetation around my house?”
If there was a fire, it would be really easy for it to spread from that vegetation to a house. And if you do, cut those back and have a really well-defined defensible space. And if you’re not sure, Pasadena Fire Department is happy to come out and work with you to give you our best advice.
If you need advice from the Pasadena Fire Department about hazardous vegetation around your home or for other advice for the upcoming fire season, call the general hotline at 626-744-4655.