Fire managers prepare for an explosive season
Fire managers in the Sierra Nevada are gearing up for another dangerous summer as it appears the region is in for an early start to the fire season.
Typically, the start of the official fire season is not declared until the end of May or early June, but unseasonably warm temperatures combined with below average snowpack levels in the region have led to dry and hazardous conditions.
“We are below our average rainfall for the area, and there is a strong correlation between warm, dry springs and busy fire seasons,” said Doug Rinella, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection battalion chief for the Truckee region.
Rinella, who directs CDF firefighting efforts in the area, is especially concerned because the early start to fire season means that fuels in the region will be even dryer and more explosive later this summer. Add to that the topography and weather typical of the region, and you get a combination that has firefighters seriously concerned about the potential for a major fire.
But while local fire managers brace for the first major fire in the area, firefighting agencies in Southern California have already been busy defending lives and property from four large wildfires in the Los Angeles area.
San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside units of the CDF went on fire season status as of May 3, and the rest of the southern region is expected to declare fire season by May 17, according to the CDF. The northern region is also expected to declare fire season by mid-May.
Fire season for CDF signifies a heightened state of alertness reflecting the increased likelihood of fire in an area. Once fire season is declared, unit chiefs can hire seasonal firefighters and increase staffing and dispatch levels as well as restrict outdoor burning.
And while the official designation of fire season does not mean as much to Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger – most of the firefighting positions in the department are staffed year-round – he is no less worried about what the dry early-season conditions will mean this summer.
Compared to CDF, the Truckee Fire Department focuses more of its attention on structure and vehicle fires within the town limits, as well as ambulance and rescue services. However, all local fire agencies typically respond to any large fire in the area.
Through mutual-aid agreements put in place by the fire chiefs from all of the Truckee and North Tahoe agencies, the CDF and the U.S. Forest Service, even a small department such as the Donner Summit Fire Department can quickly summon enough resources to attack a major fire.
However, according to Gene Welch, public safety and information officer for the Truckee Fire Protection District, “One of the reasons that during the fire season we have so many major fires is because resources get stripped, and we can’t stop small fires from becoming large ones.”
Recognizing the danger posed by the dry spring, fire crews in the Truckee Ranger District of Tahoe National Forest have been busy doing fuels reduction work around communities that are threatened by wildland fires.
“Our focus in on the wildland-urban interface, which is where the structures meet the wild land,” said Lance Noxon, the division chief for the Truckee and Sierraville Ranger Districts. “And our focus is fuels treatment adjacent to communities and where structures are present.”
In Truckee, Noxon said, “we’ve done a lot of good work adjacent to communities, and we’re well on our way to providing protection for some of these outlying communities and the town proper.”
But while fire agencies do all they can to prevent a major wildfire from spreading to urban areas, local fire managers stressed that they need the help of homeowners to give them the best chance of defending property during a wildfire.
“What Southern California did reinforce was that defensible space is the most important in protecting structures – that’s the defensible space that the homeowners have prepared,” said Rinella, adding, “I think overall, people [in Truckee] are very aware of the fire potential. But, on the same note, I feel that defensible space needs improvement.”
In an effort to promote safer communities during this fire season, the California Department of Forestry will kick off its annual Wildfire Awareness Week on Monday, May 10, with a demonstration of firefighting drills in the foothills outside of Sacramento.
This year’s theme is “It’s a Clear Choice,” a campaign designed to emphasize the importance of creating defensible space around one’s house.
For more information on Wildfire Awareness Week and measures homeowners can take to cut down on the fire risk to their homes, log on to http://www.fire.ca.gov/php/index.php
Residents who live within the Truckee Fire Protection District can also call 582-7853 for prevention information and safety questions.
Other ways to help:
CDF is looking for volunteers to staff the Martis Peak fire lookout station this summer. Currently the lookout is staffed by one Northstar Fire Department employee, but volunteers are needed to fill in on days off and at other times. For more information or to volunteer, call 582-9471.
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