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A Bone-Dry California Moves Into Wildfire Season

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Brandt Bates
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The Monterey Bay Area was not spared from wildfire last year. Still, Cal Fire says communities who suffered are again at risk this year. Here, a photograph taken in October 2020 of land burned by the Carmel Fire.

It’s been another dry year in California. Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a drought emergency in two northern California counties and the Sierra snowpack is well below normal. All that does not bode well for this summer’s wildfire season. To get a sense of what to expect this year, KAZU’s Doug McKnight spoke with Cal Fire Battalion Chief Issac Sanchez. 

Issac Sanchez (IS): It's always concerning when we don't get the normal amount of precipitation that we expect because that's part of the cycle. The rain that we receive is part of the cycle that helps to bolster the vegetation that's out there, to get it through the dry portions of the year so that it survives longer and is potentially less likely to burn and lead to a catastrophic fire.

Doug McKnight (DM):You say it's part of your concern, what are the other things you are concerned about?

IS:Oh boy, ignitions, preparation steps that the public can take, there's a whole laundry list of things that lead to, in my word, concerns.. Preparations like, you know, fuel reduction [and] projects that are pretty much year-round at this point.reparation for our firefighters, making sure they're trained [and] funding, budgetary issues. It's a constant battle that simply doesn't start and stop with the burn conditions.

DM:You talked about funding. How are you situated funding wise for the new fire season coming up? 

IS: The governor did augment our funding, which allowed us to, at this point, begin hiring firefighters sooner than we normally would have brought them back. There's funding for additional seasonal firefighters, its funding for our cooperative agreements to staff the California National Guard, [and] Conservation Corps hand crews.

DM: So, you have the money. Are there people, are there firefighters, in the state that are available to use during the fire season, or are you concerned that you may run short of people?

IS: No, we feel like we have an adequate amount. You know, you've got to recognize also that we don't do this alone. This is a state that readily shares resources across jurisdictional boundaries. The simple fact is there is no fire department. There is no single agency that has the ability to do it alone. And we rely heavily, just like everybody else does, on the mutual aid system that exists here in the state.

DM:Given so much of the state was on fire last year, are there particular areas in California that you're most concerned about this year?     

IS: You know, if we kind of painted in the light of the low snowpack, it's going to be places like the mid [middle] and upper elevations that rely on that precipitation that are going to dry out sooner. There are other places in the state that are just simply dry all the time. But, yeah, overall, I wouldn't say that there's a single place that we're concerned about. It's going to be anywhere that's affected by this precipitation, which is almost the entire state.

DM:So, for those people who live in areas that were hit last year, should they consider themselves safe? It’s already been burned out.

IS: Boy, I wish it worked that way. I really do, because, you know, those impacted communities really, really, went through a lot last year. And the sad reality of our state and the way vegetation fires burn and the way the fuel regrows, it is [a] danger that can, can return almost immediately. The grasses will return first. Those grasses live and they die; they begin to die this time of year. They're going to continue to die and then they're just going to be out there until either they're physically removed or they may burn again. So no, I wish most of those communities were able to be free from the threat of vegetation fires, but the sad reality is that they're not and that kind of speaks to the importance of maintaining that vigilance and constantly be prepared.

That was Cal Fire Battalion Chief Issac Sanchez. While wildfires can happen at any time in California, the traditional start of wildfire season begins this Saturday.