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Wildfires: Year Round Threat to California

According to Cal Fire, “From 13 air attack and nine helitack bases located statewide, aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes.” – File photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

By Terry Miller

Just when is fire season in California? The experts will tell you that fire season’s now a year-round threat, at least in California. Firefighters put their lives on the line to save ours on a daily basis. When fires start, our first responder firefighters are always ready to fight Mother Nature’s wrath swiftly with enormous resources including battling the brush fires from the air.

A cursory look at the Cal Fire homepage showed last week that there were zero active fires in the state. However, with a sudden increase in temps early into the weekend and low humidity on Saturday, everything changed. The perfect storm was about to start, again.

Fire officials have said that “fire season” is now all year round and we all must pay close attention to high-risk factors such as dry brush and other dangers around our homes and businesses.

Several fires broke out Saturday in Northern California and Six Flags Magic Mountain had to be evacuated at one point over the weekend due to a nearby 50 acre blaze. Yolo County’s Sand Fire is the largest thus far, according to Cal Fire. By Sunday afternoon the fire was 30% contained at 2,200 acres. Seven structures have been destroyed.

As of Monday morning, June 10, there were fires burning in Santa Clara, Napa, Sutter, Staninlaus counties in addition to scores of smaller incidents across the state.

Cal Fire has advised the entire state to be prepared for excessive heat, strong winds, low humidity and increased fire risks that are associated with such weather.

Monrovia Fire Chief Brad Dover told Beacon Media that the message for residents is this: 

“Follow the ‘Ready, Set, Go’ plan so [you] are always prepared for the year round threat of wildfire. If residents live in the Very High Fire Severity Zone they need to create defensible space by clearing their brush and it’s vitally important to examine their homes for vulnerabilities.

“In a wind event, embers will find their way into void spaces and start a fire that may be growing for some time before being recognized (such as an attic or underneath a house) and by then it’s too late to save. This is called hardening the structure and it’s especially important in older homes. We have checklists available available at fire headquarters so residents can do a self-assessment of their homes and have action steps to improve the structures resiliency.

“Lastly, when we order mandatory evacuations, please leave your homes and let us take care of protecting your property. The conditions are bad enough without adding the layer of complexity and risk by having people in their homes or on the vacated roads which we very much need for our personnel and equipment.”

See attached PDFs

A large wildfire is often capable of modifying local weather conditions and can “produce its own weather.” These larger fires can create their own winds, thus increasing their flow of oxygen. A really large fire can generate hurricane-force winds, up to 120 miles per hour, according to the National Park Service.
Wildfires that create their own weather usually do so under conditions for “extreme fire behavior,” according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Evan Duffey.

The hot air at the surface raises the temperature of vegetation, making it more likely to quickly ignite. This helps the fire spread faster.

Hot air at the surface also creates atmospheric instability, similar to conditions that help thunderstorms to develop, Duffey said.

The 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record in California, with a total of 8,527 fires burning an area of 1,893,913 acres (766,439 hectare), the largest area of burned acreage recorded in a fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Cal Fire report adds, “California accounted for the highest number of structures: 17,133 residences, 703 commercial/mixed residential structures and 5,811 minor structures. Utah was second with 77 residences and 377 minor structures lost.”

Pasadena Fire Department Chief Trautwein suggests the following guidelines in the event of a wildfire:

  • “In the event of a wildfire emergency, please follow all directions from our public safety responders (i.e. evacuations, travel direction etc.).
  • Keep aware of the weather and predicted forecast by tuning into your local news agency.
  • Where a hazardous vegetation condition exists, remove all dead trees and keep grass and weeds mowed within 100 feet of any building and within 10 feet of any roadway.
  • In addition, any vegetation located more than 30 feet from any building and less than 18 inches high may be maintained where necessary to stabilize soil and prevent erosion.  
  • Remove leafy foliage, dead wood, combustible groundcover, twigs, or branches within 3 feet of the ground from mature trees located within 100 feet of any building and 10 feet of any roadway.
  • Remove dead limbs, branches and other combustible matter from trees overhanging a structure.
  • Maintain 5 feet vertical clearances between roof surfaces and any overhanging portions of trees.
  • Remove any portion of a tree that extends within 10 feet of a chimney or stovepipe.
  • Trim and maintain all vegetation away from the curb-line up to a height of 13.5 feet to accommodate emergency vehicles.”

Last year was California’s deadliest year for fires as well, with more than 100 killed, Cal Fire’s McLean said. The Camp Fire in the fall, which destroyed the town of Paradise, killed 85 people, according to Cal Fire.

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