Wildfires Underscore Need for Readiness

Taylor HillmanEnvironment, Weather

Four years of drought and overgrown vegetation on land across California are proving an explosive combination: Nearly two dozen active wildfires are burning throughout the state and firefighters are bracing for the brunt of fire season in coming weeks.

With fires threatening farms, ranches and rural communities, officials have been issuing red-flag fire danger warnings and urging people living in wildfire-prone areas to double-check their properties to ensure all fire safety measures have been taken.

Gov. Brown has declared a state of emergency in California, to help mobilize additional firefighting and disaster response resources. He also mobilized additional National Guard troops, bringing the number of troops cutting fire breaks and providing support services to 600.

The Rocky Fire, which quickly burned through 70,000 acres of chaparral and pine in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, was “a real wake-up call,” Brown said, because of the way it performed. The Rocky Fire was 85 percent contained by Monday.

“Our wineries weren’t in the fire path and they came through OK,” Brenna Sullivan, Lake County Farm Bureau manager, said. “The biggest impact has been on pear harvest. The trucks have not been able to get in and out on the fastest highway routes. Added transport costs are having a major impact on pear farmers.”

Lake County Agricultural Commissioner Steven Hajik said it will be weeks before agricultural loss estimates come in. Most of the county’s commercial agriculture is conducted on the western side of Clear Lake, he said, while the fires have been burning in wildland areas on the eastern side of the county.

There are a number of newer wineries and vineyards on the eastern side of the lake, closer to the fire, but none had reported damage. Nevertheless, owners said they’ve spent many sleepless nights—and the threat has not ended.

Mop-up action on the Rocky Fire coincided with a new fire outbreak Sunday, a few miles away. The Jerusalem Fire in Lake County raced through 5,000 acres of rugged chaparral overnight as crews were transitioning to other fires.

With the National Guard deployment, there were nearly 11,000 firefighters battling more than 19 active wildfires across the state, including U.S. Forest Service firefighters working to contain lightning-sparked fires in Northern California forests.

In Trinity County, the town of Hayfork found itself under siege. The Fork Complex Fire, consisting of more than 40 lightning-sparked fires, burned through more than 22,000 acres of range and timberland.

Because the fire was burning around the town, it caused cancellation of the county fair. Instead, the fairgrounds were being used as base camp for more than 1,900 firefighting personnel.

“We’re in the thick of the fire right here,” Trinity County rancher Mike Roarke said. “The Rail Fire—part of the Fork Complex Fire—burned right up to the town of Hayfork.”

On his family’s ranch outside of town, which has been producing beef, hay and timber for 150 years, grazing land had been burned. But irrigated pastures had not been damaged so far, he said. The family also holds U.S. Forest Service grazing permits, and he said his son had removed cattle from South Fork Mountain because fires were burning around the allotment.

Complications from road closures and fire danger meant it took a couple of days to gain permission to go in and get the cattle out, Roarke said. Highway access to the area has been highly restricted, which makes getting trucks in and moving cattle difficult.

Both Roarke and his son teach agriculture at county high schools and he pointed out students raised animals to show and sell at the fair, so despite the fair’s cancellation, the livestock sale was conducted because the animals were market-ready and needed to go.

“We know it’s been a tough week for the citizens of Trinity County,” U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Rocky Opliger said, “and we appreciate the cooperation and the patience of everyone during this emergency.”

Roarke said local ranchers are all too familiar with wildfires, “but in the past few years we’ve had to deal with a lot more fires. Obviously, the drought has created problems, but we’ve had droughts before.”

What’s different now, he said, is a lack of forest management.

“What we’re dealing with is a perfect storm that has been 20 to 30 years in the making,” Roarke said. “We’ve had ongoing problems with resources management. There’s a lot of fuel and there are a lot of fires going on. Multiple grazing allotments are being affected by these fires and a lot of private timber is being lost.”

Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, said the state’s fire activity has been nearly double what it normally is for this time of year. Nationally, 38 large fires have burned about 300,000 acres so far this year, with about 200,000 of those burned acres in California.

“Our firefighters continue to meet the challenges posed by California’s historic drought, but we all must do our part to ensure our homes are prepared for wildfire and that residents and visitors to our state take extreme caution to avoid sparking a wildfire,” Pimlott said.

Cal Fire urges people living in fire-prone areas to maintain at least 100 feet of defensible space and harden homes to fire. With many weeks to go before the threat of wildfire diminishes, the agency said people should have an evacuation plan and an emergency kit ready to go.

It is not too late to prepare, fire experts said. Information on preparing for the possibility of wildfire may be found at www.ReadyForWildfire.org.

“We’re getting ready. We have resources—we’ll need more—but you can be sure California firefighting personnel and all their different departments are ready and we’re going to do everything we possibly can,” Gov. Brown said last week.

Story By Kate Campbell from Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.