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‘Extreme’ fire season expected in 2014

January 27, 2014

With little to no rain in December and January, the Owens Valley landscape is parched and dry. Fire officials are warning residents about what could be an “extreme” fire season. Photo by Darcy Ellis

Amidst one of the worst droughts in California’s recorded history, state officials have issued a burn suspension in Inyo and Mono counties due to “extreme” potential for wildfires.
Firefighters across the state are preparing for what may turn out to be one of the earliest and hardest fire seasons in recent memory by fully manning fire stations and educating the public on the hazards wildfires could pose.
Typically, the Eastern Sierra’s fire season hits full swing in late winter and early spring, when conditions are still dry and before local foliage “greens up” for the summer months by drawing moisture from root systems to leaves.
However, with little to no rain in December or January, officials fear that the fire season may already be here. (For the latest on weather predictions, see Pg. 3.)
Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought on Jan. 17, directing state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions.
In response, CalFire began ramping up its staff at fire stations and communities throughout the state have began fire awareness campaigns.
Locally, CalFire issued the burn restriction for all State Responsibility Areas (areas that do not have local fire departments) that went into effect at 6 a.m. last Friday.
Rather than burning trimmed branches and yard clippings, CalFire said residents are urged to consider chipping the debris into mulch, or taking it to a green waste facility while the burn suspension is in effect.
“The lack of significant rain this winter has left the grass, brush and timber critically dry, which has resulted in a significant increase in wildfires,” a press release from CalFire states.
Since Jan. 1, the state fire agency has responded to more than 289 wildfires that have charred 721 acres (not including the recent fire outside Los Angeles).
“We will continue to monitor conditions, threat and fire activity within this region,” CalFire San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono County Acting Unit Chief Rod Bywater said in a press release. “Additional equipment will be staffed accordingly, as warranted by the Governor’s Drought State of Emergency Declaration.”
That Declaration of Emergency includes language that exempts state firefighters from California Environmental Quality Act requirements. According to the declaration, CEQA requirements could hinder an immediate response from firefighters in areas of the state.
“We are experiencing conditions right now that we would usually see in August,” said CalFire Director Chief Ken Pimlott via press release last week. “In Southern California we never really transitioned out of fire season and in Northern California we are already in the process of hiring additional seasonal firefighters to augment our permanent firefighters who have been staffing extra fire equipment this winter. We have increased our personnel and now we need the public to make sure they, too, are prepared for early fire season conditions.”
In response to the threat of an extreme fire season, CalFire officials from across the state are pushing the “defensible space” initiative, urging residents to clear brush from within at least 100 feet of homes and structures.
According to CalFire, many of the fires the agency has seen this past month have been sparked by powered equipment like lawn mowers and weed trimmers.
“While maintaining Defensible Space is critical right now, residents are asked not to use powered equipment outdoors during the heat of the day when it’s dry and windy,” a press release from CalFire states.
All clearance work should be done in the early morning when temperatures are down and humidity is up, to avoid sparking a wildfire. “One less spark means one less wildfire,” the press release states.
CalFire recommends residents follow these tips to help protect their homes and property this fire season:
• Maintain 100 feet of Defensible Space around all structures.
• Clear all needles and leaves from roofs, eaves and rain gutters.
• Trim branches six feet from the ground.
• Landscape with fire resistant/drought tolerant plants, that require little water.
• Remove branches away from roofs and 10 feet from the chimney.
• Use trimming, mowing and powered equipment before 10 a.m., and not on hot, windy days.
• Keep wood piles and flammable materials at least 30 feet from the home.
For more fire safety tips, visit the CalFire website at www.fire.ca.gov or www.readyforwildfire.org.

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