Fire Season Off to a Roaring Start

Wildfire response in California doubling last year’s pace — with fewer resources

For the second straight year, CalFire is running its engines with reduced staffing.” credit=”Craig Miller

Get ready for what might be a nasty season for wildfires in California. Though few have made big news so far, CalFire says that its crews have already responded to more than 1,000 fires this spring — that’s double the pace from a year ago and well ahead of the five-year average.

And fires aren’t the only challenge. State firefighters are already trying to do more with less. CalFire is working with a smaller budget and reduced staffing on its engines.

“It’s tough,” says Clare Frank, CalFire’s assistant deputy director. “I won’t say we’re unimpacted. We’re doing our best to minimize the impact on the public.” Frank says that so far, budget cuts have not affected the agency’s basic attack strategy in the field. “We’re still going to pursue our goal of keeping 90% of the fires at 10 acres or less,” Frank told me after an inter-agency briefing on Wednesday.” “We want to keep small fires small, we want to hit them hard with initial attack, and that strategy remains the same.”

But Frank admits that it will be tougher to fight bigger fires, and we’re likely to have some. Despite the late-season rain and snow this spring, overall conditions are, in Franks’ own words, “ripe for a very serious and destructive fire season.”

“It’s already started earlier,” said Michael Ramirez, a battalion chief and instructor at the state fire academy, near Jackson. “The grass has already turned. We believe we’re getting significant activity compared to the last two years.”

Forest Service map shows areas of highest vulnerability this fire season. “Normal” is based on fire activity averaged over 20 years.” credit=”USFS

CalFire is running with about 700 fewer seasonal firefighters this year, and with fewer bulldozers and less air support than in years past. The U.S. Forest Service says its California stations are fully staffed. The federal Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service also have some fire response capability. But budget cuts have thinned firefighting crews at the city and county levels, which could exact a toll in situations where mutual aid from local departments is crucial.

Frank says that since the budget cuts, we haven’t yet seen a fire season that has truly tested the response network. She says 2008 was the last time the state reached “draw-down” status, when all state resources are maxed out responding to incidents. “That really tested our system,” she told me. “We are preparing to be tested at that level this year — and hoping we won’t be.”

Meanwhile officials are imploring rural homeowners to keep at least 100 feet of “defensible” space cleared around their homes. You can learn all about how to do that at CalFire’s Ready-for-Wildfire website, and at the California Fire Alliance site.

The complete fire season outlook is available as a PDF download from the Forest Service.

Fire Season Off to a Roaring Start 1 February,2018Craig Miller

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Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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