The wildland fire season has been keeping fire crews busy in the San Joaquin Valley and Sierra foothills, where the potential for large fires has been rated above normal through October.
But thanks to a wet winter, the potential for large fires in the higher elevations of the southern Sierra Nevada is below normal through July and August.
That’s the verdict of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which issued its latest report July 1.
From the Carrizo Plains to high-mountain meadows, winter 2016-17 produced a bumper crop of tall grass. Now mostly brown and dry, the grass of the flatlands and the foothills have the attention of firefighters.
“It burns at a hotter rate and it burns faster,” Fresno County Fire Protection District Capt. Jeremiah Wittwer said.
2,135 number of wildland fires so far this year burning 20,249 acres
1,750 number of wildland fires to date in 2016 burning 18,354 acres
Just this week, two fires caused concern on opposite sides of the Valley. The Spring Fire started Sunday in the foothills south of Mariposa, forcing evacuations. As of Tuesday morning, it had consumed 225 acres but was 50 percent contained with forward progress stopped.
Meanwhile, the Derrick Fire west of Coalinga that also started Sunday consumed more than 1,500 acres and was 40 percent contained. No evacuations were ordered because it is in a remote area.
The region’s biggest fire of the season so far, the Elm Fire south of Coalinga in May, destroyed more than 10,000 acres and forced some residents on Parkfield Grade to evacuate.
Oddly, when temperatures exceed 100 degrees, the number of fire calls goes down because people stay inside, Wittwer said. When temperatures dip back into the 90s, “we see more action,” he said.
The number of wildland fires so far this year is 2,135, burning 20,249 acres, Cal Fire reports. Last year, a drought year, there were 1,750 fires to date and 18,354 acres burned.
The difference is explained by the fact a wet winter produced more grass.
Monsoonal weather is forecast to come in Wednesday and could bring the threat of lightning to the high Sierra and coast range, National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Durfee said. The same weather pattern is likely to repeat Sunday and Monday, he said.
“There’s just enough moisture to create thunderstorms over the coastal range, Kern County mountains and the Sierra,” he said. But he added that no fire weather watch is likely to be issued because it’s a weak system.
Dead trees a concern
Lurking in the higher elevations are millions of dead trees.
They are everywhere in the Sierra Nevada because of a bark beetle infestation that accompanied the drought. The infestation has killed an estimated 102 million trees in California since 2010.
Wittwer said the tree die-off – even oak trees are stressed – around Auberry and Shaver Lake worries firefighters. “It is a huge threat,” he said.
Newly dead conifers also are a fire hazard because the dead, dry needles are still attached to the branches.
The needles dry out further and become fuel, he said.
“There’s a lot more material that is ready to burn,” he said. “You don’t have that potential for fire moving from crown to crown, but you have potential to spread fire. The embers can land on something ready to burn. You get spots in front of the main fire.”
Best offense is good defense
Those who own homes in forested areas need to have “a defensible space” around their property, he said.
Residents of the small towns of eastern Fresno County have been doing just that.
Mahalia LoMele of Pinehurst is the chair of the Oak to Timberline Fire Safe Council, which has been getting grants to remove dead trees around Pinehurst, Squaw Valley, Piedra, Dunlap and Badger (in Tulare County).
Residents of Pinehurst, at 4,000 feet, are hoping that the lingering aspects of the wet winter stave off the fire season a bit longer.
“Our grass is still green in some places,” LoMele said. “It hasn’t turned all yellow yet.”