Firefighters brace for early start to Sierra wildfires
As the days warm and the weather stays snowless, Sierra fire crews are bracing for a fast-approaching fire season.
It’s an annual ritual that experts say may begin much earlier this season, due to a combination of below-average snow and above-average temperatures that is beginning to bake vegetation in the fire-prone forests of the Sierra Nevada.
“As soon as those fuel moistures go down, we know we need to get our seasonal firefighters back and our air tankers ready for the start of fire season,” said Tina Rose, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, the state department that fights forest fires.
Cal Fire takes regular moisture readings in Auburn, Truckee and other sites in the region. When trees and shrubs fall below a certain moisture rating, the state department mobilizes to be on-call for forest fires.
So far the Sierra Nevada region is still moist, but that will change swiftly if the warm, dry days persist, said Rose.
“If we don’t get rain, we would be looking at a really severe fire season,” said Rose, who is in Southern California, following an “unusual” 2,000-acre March brush fire in the Anaheim Hills.
Reno has already seen two brush fires flare up in the last month.
Sierra weather has been between 10 and 15 degrees above average over the last week, said Tom Cylke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.
The dry weather is expected to break for a snow storm on Monday night and Tuesday that could bring up to a foot of snow to the high Sierra elevations.
But dry weather is expected to follow, and March will likely end as a below-average month for precipitation, he said.
“It won’t be a Miracle March,” said Cylke.
Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in the Tahoe Basin, knows the winter is headed for a drier than average finish, but said that local firefighters will be prepared, as always, for any situation.
“We have pretty formidable equipment,” said Norman. “We’ve got a couple of twin-engine tankers just minutes away.”
So far it’s too early to mobilize seasonal Sierra fire fighters, but Forest Service crews are still conducting prescribed burns to thin fire-prone vegetation around the basin.
The Tahoe Basin unit of the Forest Service recently nearly quadrupled the number of acres they intend to thin and burn each year, after adding a full-time prescribed fire and thinning crew.
Cal Fire is asking Sierra residents to begin clearing and trimming vegetation around their property now, before the summer begins.
The method known as defensible space requires cutting the lower branches of trees, clearing vegetation that can allow fire to climb into the crown of trees and thinning flammable bushes in a 100-foot radius of a structure.
Studies have shown the work to be extremely effective in protecting a home from destruction in a wildfire.
“What we want to see now in March, is people getting out and cutting brush and getting their defensible space,” said Tina Rose, spokeswoman for Cal Fire.
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Volunteers are being sought to take water samples from creeks, streams and smaller lakes, including Lake Tahoe, in the Tahoe-Truckee watershed to get a snapshot of water quality at a single moment in time.