A Chat with Deputy Fire Chief Tom Welch
Updated: Feb 23
By Courtney Gaiman, Scott Valley NRG Steering Committee
With over 28 years of public safety experience, Tom Welch has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to fire safety and prevention. Deputy Fire Chief Welch serves as Chief of Operations and Training Chief for the Mill Valley Fire Department.
He has been hailed as a hero for his leadership during the Tubbs fire in 2017, working for an additional 14 hours to evacuate neighbors after his own house was destroyed in Santa Rosa, along with 1,500 other homes in the area.
In May of 2018, Deputy Chief Welch was present and assisting fellow firefighters with protecting our neighborhood from the house fire on Stanton Way. I recently spoke with him about fire preparedness in Scott Valley, and I’m hopeful that my neighbors can learn as much from our chat as I did.
Q&A with Courtney Gaiman (CG) and Chief Tom Welch (TW)
CG: With fire season upon us, what are the top 3 fire prevention tips you would encourage our Scott Valley neighbors to focus on?
TW: 1. Create an evacuation plan with your family. 2. Manage vegetation around your home, focusing on those areas immediately around your home. 3. Harden elements of your home.
CG: What is the importance of identifying an out-of-state contact person as part of your evacuation plan?
TW: During a fire, the phone systems can be very labile. An out-of-state person located in a stable area can work on your behalf by sharing updates with other family and friends. During the Santa Rosa fires, our cell phone service was unpredictable. I was able to utilize my Father-In-Law, located in Chico, as a communication liaison for my family.
CG: You’ve spoken very candidly about losing your own home in Santa Rosa during the Tubbs Fire. Given your personal experience, what should our neighbors keep in mind on Red Flag days?
TW: Red flag days represent a period of time or conditions when large fires are more likely. Understanding this, residents should evaluate their evacuation plan and ensure their equipment is up-to-speed. This flyer has great information to consider when planning for a Scott Valley evacuation.”
CG: The evacuation flyer states ‘Hosing your roof down is dangerous and ineffective.’ I always thought that would be a helpful course of action to take. Can you explain why?
TW: Nothing in your house or around your house is worth risking your life. Residents who stay behind aren’t properly trained in fire dynamics or changing conditions. They can become a liability if they stay in the neighborhood while firefighters are trying to do their job.
“Nothing in your house or around your house is worth risking your life.” — Tom Welch, Mill Valley Deputy Fire Chief
CG: So it wouldn’t be helpful to spray down our roof to prevent flying embers from possibly igniting?
TW: The fire department will never pre-treat a house with water during a wildfire. Conditions are super hot and dry, and relative humidity is way down. If you spray a roof down and leave, that water will evaporate and dry within minutes. What will net results is pulling vegetation away from the first few feet of your home – this is preparation done months in advance.
CG: This Scott Valley evacuation flyer has a very helpful checklist of Emergency ‘Grab & Go Bag’ essentials. In the Covid era, are there any additional items you would recommend?
TW: I would recommend redundancy in masks and adding hand sanitizer. It’s important to note, during Covid, our call volume has gone down considerably. The amount of people dying at their home has gone up five-fold. People are having medical problems and are fearful of going to the hospital, and so they stay home and die anyway. If you are sick and you have a medical emergency, we want you to go to the hospital. They have procedures and policies in place to make sure you’re safe. We’re also taking precautions in our preparations for Community Refuge Centers.
CG: At our location in Scott Valley, we have several ‘protective factors’ working in our favor including close proximity to Edna McGuire (a Community Refuge Area) and wide roads. Considering our specific location and these factors, what should our neighbors be mindful of during an evacuation scenario?
TW: Because you do have some very good [protective factors] going for you, please do not fail to prepare for an evacuation. Go-Bags are helpful in many different emergencies, including earthquakes and power outages. In the case of a fire in your neighborhood, your wide streets are excellent. You would be able to walk down the middle of your street, even if all of the homes were on fire. Just take Vasco Court down to the baseball field and hang out at second base – we will come update you. It will probably be smoky, but you will be safe there.
CG: If we need to evacuate by car, we have two options: north over Camino Alto or south via the East Blithedale intersection. What are your thoughts on those options?
TW: I can’t tell you which way to go because there’s a million different scenarios. We do plan on providing people with information via the LRAD (Long-Range Acoustic Device) system. It’s important for people to know that fire loves to go uphill. On the way up to the [Camino Alto] divide is the highest risk spot. Once you get over the divide, you would be in a better space since fires do not burn as aggressively on north-facing slopes.
CG: Why would you encourage our neighbors to participate in NRG events and evacuation drills?
TW: In the fire service, things always go better when we practice and prepare on sunny days, or what we call ‘peace time.’ Because if you first practice during ‘war time’, you set yourself up for failure. People always think ‘it will never happen to me’, but it could, and it has to a lot of people.
CG: How does the Neighborhood Response Group philosophy of ‘neighbors helping neighbors’ translate into a wildfire emergency?
TW: NRGs are crucial to have a plan and to look out for one another. As I saw in the Santa Rosa fires, the importance of banging on the doors of the homes to the left and right of yours is crucial. If we look out for each other, we are so much better off.
I would like to extend a very heartfelt thank you to Deputy Fire Chief Tom Welch taking the time to talk with me and for offering his invaluable insight.