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Fire agencies prepare for busy season approaching

Not out of the woods despite heavy winter precipitation
By: Mackenzie Myers, Reporter
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Though Northern California has had one of its wettest winters on record, area fire chiefs warn against complacency as fire season approaches.

Last year California saw 51 wildfires, some of which are still ongoing, according to data from incident tracking system InciWeb. Drought-stricken conditions over the last several years have meant thinner resources and earlier ramp-up times for crews. Chief George Morris of the Nevada-Yuba-Placer CalFire unit said that crews began training in March last year, and their season lasted through late December. Though he believes there’s no such thing as a “normal” fire season, this year should be more aligned with the regular May-to-November schedule. Between 300 and 350 firefighters will be on staff at CalFire’s Auburn headquarters by June. 

Already they’re preparing, making sure vehicles run properly and have necessary equipment, such as shovels, Pulaskis and 45-pound fire hoses rolled up into backpacks. Morris’s unit has also been working on fuel reduction, eliminating grasses and ladder fuels – shorter plants near trees that can help a fire leap from the ground to the canopy. Morris is excited about the fuel reduction, not only because of its impact on controlling a burn, but because it’s visible to the community. 

He said that keeping afloat during fire season is an interdepartmental effort. Between landowners maintaining property, local law enforcement developing evacuation plans and CalTrans clearing brush along highways, everyone plays a role in helping fire season pass smoothly. 

“Each of us has a piece of landscape that we drive by every day and watch it,” Morris said of his staff. “My main concern is complacency. We’re not out of the woods yet.” 

Though rain means wetter vegetation for now, it will eventually dry up in late summer, and in many cases extra moisture means extra plant material. A wet winter doesn’t indicate a low-risk fire season, it just means the risks are slightly different. 

Lightning or, more rarely, spontaneous combustion can start fires, but Morris said most incidents are tied to human activity. Arson is a factor, but often fires start out of carelessness: operating vehicles in dry grass, burning debris or playing with fireworks. 

“We tailor media campaigns, send messages out about those activities,” Morris said. “We try to get people to understand the risks they’re taking as the season progresses.”

Morris said that even people in urban areas need to be aware of fire danger. A faraway blaze can still impact air quality, water quality and opportunities for recreation.

“There is not a place in California where wildfire doesn’t affect you,” he said. “You may not directly lose your home, but you may lose quality of life.” 

Though each community has slightly different circumstances when it comes to wildfire, municipal crews from Auburn to Folsom have already started their wildland training. Since local departments participate in a statewide mutual aid system – meaning crews can be anywhere in California, or even out-of-state, if they’re needed – they have to be ready to cut fuel breaks, lay hoses, deploy emergency fire shelters and communicate effectively in dangerous situations.

Regarding each community’s concerns and preparation, here’s what chiefs had to say: 

Folsom and El Dorado Hills

Folsom Fire Chief Dan Haverty said he pictures an aggressive wildland fire season in late summer.

“It’s California and the weather will turn,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for light, flashy fuels to dry out, and what we’ve seen this year is taller grass.” 

Crews in Folsom have begun fuel reduction around the city, and Haverty said the most challenging areas are canyons and creek areas, since they provide both fuel and slopes. Areas that abut businesses and homes are also critical. 

The rural areas flanking El Dorado Hills present a risk for their district, according to Chief Dave Roberts, but it’s been several years since the area has had a large fire. He said the community is a good partner in the city’s weed abatement program and that residents are well-prepared and educated on safety practices. 

“We’ve been very fortunate that crews have been quick and well-trained, and we’re able to keep starts to relatively small areas,” Roberts said. “You only hear about the big ones that get out of hand, but crews are taking care of fires all the time.”

Rocklin and Lincoln

Though Rocklin and Lincoln share fire resources, Battalion Chief Martin Holm said the cities’ shared service agreement has “no change whatsoever” on how the department will help fight wildfires. 

Rocklin and Lincoln don’t have heavy timber areas like Auburn and El Dorado Hills. Instead, Holm said the cities’ risk lies more in roadside starts and people being careless with fire. The cities contract a herd of goats to eat grasses and keep fire danger down, but Holm recommends that residents avoid stacking wood against their homes and make sure trees don’t grow directly over the roof. 

“You’ve got to picture: if the fire spreads to that, where will it go?” he said. “Huge for us is access, as well, making sure your driveway isn’t overgrown. Clear fire hydrants in front of houses. All these things add up to making things easier for us.” 

Auburn

Division Chief Tom Carlisle said that the American River Canyon is a large concern for the Auburn area, given its recreational popularity and vegetation-packed wilderness. In addition, canyons are extremely dangerous to fight fires on; fire travels faster uphill and the steep, rough terrain can cause unsteady footing for firefighters. 

Carlisle said that his crews are always training and that Auburn is at “the lion’s share” of major wildfire incidents throughout the state, though Placer County fire departments are on a rotational system. 

As far as the wet winter and tree die-off in Placer County, Carlisle said he’s not sure how they will have an impact on this season. 

“It’s hard to make predictions,” he said. “All we can do is be as fire-safe as possible and do everything we can to prepare.”

Roseville

Though it’s one of greater Sacramento’s largest cities, Roseville still has some unique wildfire risks. Assistant Chief Brian Diemer said that undeveloped grassland on the city’s northwest side is an area of concern, as well as old agricultural lands and Secret Ravine. Fortunately, with the right weather conditions, these grasslands give crews a place to practice suppressing controlled burns. The Roseville department also participates with neighboring agencies like CalFire and the Sacramento Fire Department as part of training.

Diemer said last year his crew helped out at the Trailhead Fire in Foresthill and that Roseville units are up and down the state every summer.

In addition to managing defensible space, Diemer said residents can prepare for fire season by developing an evacuation plan with family.