SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — In October 2017, The Oakmont Fire came ranging though Sonoma County, and as Cheryl Diehm caught sight of the orange night sky, she knew she was in trouble.

Loading up her two beloved cats into her car, the retired congressional aid hobbled on her cane – a necessary evil after a then-recent knee surgery – as flames were closing in around Sonoma County. When Diehm went to open her garage door, she couldn’t lift it beyond a foot.

“I was never, ever going to outrun a fire,” recalled Diehm. “I did everything that I was supposed to do. I tried to lift it up. It only went about 12 inches above the ground and then it would stop.”

Then Diehm got extremely lucky. A Good Samaritan was driving by. He stopped, leapt out of his car, and flung Diehm’s garage door open. Just as quickly as he appeared, Diehm’s savior was gone, back in his own car, and driving away. Diehm never caught his name. But she did get her car out, and she drove to safety.

But what Diehm experienced turned out deadly for some others who, because of age or physical disability, could not open their garage doors. And no Good Samaritan was there to help them. Wildfire Safety expert David Shew says not since the 1990’s has there been a law passed dealing with garage door safety.

“It’s not just a little bit of panic,” cautioned Shew. “In these types of situations we see extreme panic.”

Back in the 1990s it was a requirement that all garage door openers have sensors, preventing the door from closing, and crushing anything in its way. Shew thinks SB 969, the new California law requiring that all newly installed openers have battery backups for power, just makes sense.

“The speed and intensity that these current fires that we’ve seen in the last couple of years that are moving through communities.” explained Shew. “{Just} don’t give people time to think or really try to understand what to do in that emergency situation.”

Scott O’Neill of Madden Doors and Sons says some customers who simply want to replace their garage door are shocked to learn the new law requires them to also spend hundreds of dollars more to replace their opener as well, even if the old one works just fine.

“Something happened where they have to replace that garage door and it wasn’t planned for,” explained O’Neill. “Their opener wasn’t that old and they’re forced to buy one with a battery backup? That hurts.”

A new electric opener costs less than $200 but a new battery-powered opener runs about $500. But O’Neill is also quick to point out that Pacific Gas and Electric’s plan to cut the power to areas threatened by wildfire has actually inspired some homeowners to voluntarily upgrade to a battery backup opener.

“People want reliability,” said O’Neill. “They want to have that operator dependable in case the power does go.”

Cheryl Diehm is on board. She got her own battery backup opener installed soon after the fire. And its cost included something Diehm says is invaluable – peace of mind.

“My life is worth $500, at least,” said Diehm.

If a homeowner wants to keep their old electric openers, installers face a $1,000 fine if they reconnect it. And that’s not all, more safety changes are coming. Next January, building code will require a special gasket that seals the garage door to prevent burning embers from blowing into the garage and starting a fire inside the home.

 

 

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