By Julia Calderone | KUSP News
Fire season is off to an early start this year, after three consecutive years of below normal rainfall. A record number of wildfires has left California’s firefighters bracing for an early start to a busy season.
Training for a Bad Fire Year
Two dozen firefighters are scattered across the dusty, wooded Bonny Doon training camp some 15 miles into the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s a hazy 75 degrees and they’re in full gear, practicing dragging giant hoses 500 feet across a grassy, muddy field. Others are throwing 24 foot extension ladders against a mock building made of corrugated metal.
The 23 firefighters are finishing a week of training and testing as they refresh their skills after a winter off. But they’re returning a little early this year. With the winter’s dry conditions and the worsening drought, the 2013 fire season never really ended. California has had well over 1,200 fires this year, which is nearly double the average. Dry brush, leaves and grasses are easy fuel for a quick spark. Here’s CAL FIRE’s Clare Frank:
“We’re in our third year of low precipitation, and this year the governors office actually declared it a drought year, which speaks to the dry fuel conditions. The fuels are burning – we have a measurement called an energy release component, which tells us how flammable the fuel is and how fast the fire is going to spread and the energy release components this year were historical.”
This has forced San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to staff their state funded fire engines early. Because the area received almost no rain fall until late February and March, the county’s Unit Chief Scott Jalbert says that the large dead fuels – or parched woody plants like fallen trees or brush piles – never soaked up enough moisture to recover from last year’s fire season.
No Break on the Horizon
“So for all intents and purposes, they are ready to burn as if they were last year,” Jalbert says.
He adds that the late rains did more harm than good. As they germinated the grass, large crops started popping up in abnormal places.
“So now you have the combination of a large grass crop and a lot of dead fuels, and all you need is a little weather to start and we’re going to have some problems,” he says.
Santa Cruz county declared the start of fire season a month early on May 5th. Along with observing the county-wide burn ban, Jalbert says that one of the most important things rural residents can do is play defense by prepping their properties.
“Have a good clearance around your home. Make sure your roof is free of any burnable pineneedles, leaves and so forth. Making sure the gutters are kept clean, making sure there’s no dead limbs hanging on the roof, especially in the chimney areas. Unforunately, you get a lot of fires where people are trying to do the right thing and actually mow their grass. Unfortunately it’s under the wrong conditions and they strike a rock and actually start a fire.”
And perhaps more importantly, Jalbert says that everyone needs to be prepared for evacuation.
“If I had 10 or 15 minutes to leave my home, what would I take with me in those 10 or 15 mins.”
The county hasn’t had any issues hiring new recruits. Jalbert says they received 1,100 applications for five slots last year. In San Benito and Monterey Counties, CAL FIRE hired 23 firefighters. While this is great news for the quality of the squad, the arid conditions are enough to tax any team.
“I think all of us are a little bit tired just because we’ve not been off guard, we usually get a little reprieve during winter time. A lot of people have had to work a lot of extra hours, and you know, we haven’t even started fire season yet and we’ve had to force people on duty – so as we say in fire service, ‘fire season isn’t a race, it’s a marathon’ so you’ve really got to pace yourself.”
Still, a little fatigue doesn’t mean that they’re not prepared.
“I think we’re ready to go. The crews have been training, our equipment is ready to go. We have our aircraft on board. We’re as ready as we normally are, just a couple months early.”