According to Drought.gov, a national integrated drought information system, California’s latest drought spanned 376 weeks beginning on Dec. 27, 2011, and ended on March 5, 2019. CAL FIRE reports show that of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history, 10 took place during that same timeframe.
The five years of exceptional drought (classified D4 on the US Drought Monitor) were undoubtedly the precursor for the extensive damage caused by California’s 2017 and 2018 fire seasons, which accounted for eight of the 20 most destructive wildfires, including the Camp Fire sparked on Nov. 8, 2018, where the entire town of Paradise erupted in flames and 86 victims died. 2019 brought moderate weather with mild winds and temperatures between the 80s and 90s, rarely reaching 100. This continued into October until the winds began to rise, which helped the Kincade Fire engulf 80,000 acres. This added to the fires simultaneously burning in Southern California, which totaled approximately 240,000 acres damaged by wildfires, still only a fraction of the 1.9 million acres burned in 2018.
As we move into 2020, the snow water equivalent through the Sierra Nevada range looks bleak. Drought.gov reports that the California National Weather Service COOP station in Tahoe City only recorded 0.12 inches of precipitation, which equals 1 inch total snowfall for the month, making this February the third driest February since record keeping began in 1904. Given this season’s lack of snowfall, preparations must be made for a potentially active fire season.
“When Governor Newsom came into office last year, he enhanced our abilities and productivity,” Scott McLean, deputy fire chief with CAL FIRE Communications Bureau, said. “Governor Newsom brought on 110 National Guard troops and allocated to CAL FIRE enough funds to buy 13 more additional state fire engines, with engine crews to accompany them.”
Due to Executive Order N-05-19 signed by Governor Newsom, a 45-day report was developed to identify 35 fuel-reduction projects tasked to CAL FIRE to prevent and mitigate wildfires. As of February, all 35 projects have been completed.
“These projects benefited over 200 communities,” McLean said. “We use prescribed fire, which is a low-intensity fire that burns the debris of the forest floor out in the wildland and grass areas, to destroy invasive species of vegetation.”
Although the 35 projects are complete, they must be revisited in time to maintain the progress that has been made.
“There has been a lot of damage and harm caused by forest fires to people, homes, properties, as well as the state’s electrical and water infrastructure,” Susan Britting, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy, said. “There are, however, a lot of benefits from fires that are at the right place, time, and severity, such as revitalize a forest ecosystem by recycling renewed nutrients and creating habitat structures.”
Sierra Forest Legacy is a nonprofit conservation organization with a mission to protect the forest in the Sierra Nevada and the species that are dependent on them. Sierra Forest Legacy assists those who live in the fire-adapted communities, while providing support for forest resources.
“There are many things people can do right around their homes and neighborhoods, such as helping your neighbors clear their property of downed timber and pine needles,” Britting said. “Some people are less able to do their clearing, and that can be a positive neighborly thing to do to help others, as well as the entire community.”
Aside from general property maintenance, there are laws set in place to ensure a property is “hardened” for the fire season, such as removing all combustible products like brooms, chairs or mulch at least 5 feet away from their home.
“All tree branches 5 to 30 feet from your residence should be trimmed evenly to prevent a fire from reaching the crowns of the trees, which accelerates the fire rapidly,” McLean said.
Other considerations when preparing for the fire season should include ingress and egress routes for the fire department to access your property, a secondary avenue of escape and putting together a bag of necessary supplies, such as food, water, laptops, and hard drives.
“More information regarding wildfire preparation can be found at your local fire district as well as community organizations referred to as fire safe councils, fire wise communities, fire-safe councils or fire-adapted communities,” Britting said.
Additional Resources –
CAL FIRE Community Wildfire Prevention & Mitigation Report
CAL FIRE Fuel Breaks and Use During Fire Suppression
USGS Fast Fire Facts
U.S. Fire Administration
Drought.gov, National Integrated Drought Information System