Wildfire is no stranger to California. Last year wildfires wrought historic destruction to several California communities, continuing a concerning trend in our state of wildfires occurring more frequently and with more ferocity. As the temperatures rise, the threats of wildfire are once again on everyone’s mind.
California’s Mediterranean climate has always brought the risk of wildfires. Our long, hot summers, dried vegetation and annual grasses combine to make an explosive mixture once a fire is ignited. In California, most wildland fires are human-caused, mostly by accident, though sometimes intentional.
Cal Fire and the Fresno County Fire Protection District have been taking steps to mitigate the wildfire risks, and provide an effective response force once a wildfire starts.
In 2015, Fresno County was in the middle of yet another drought. This time, however, the drought was accompanied by a widespread invasion of bark beetles. Coupled with a prolonged lack of stewardship within our forests, this caused an unprecedented die off in pine trees. Such a crisis demanded a unified response from local, state and federal government and administrative agencies. Among these groups, Cal Fire and the Fresno County Fire Protection District stand out.
In addition to fire suppression, Cal Fire is tasked with resource management within the state’s responsibility areas. The Fresno–Kings Unit within Cal Fire took an early and proactive approach to address the tree mortality crisis in the County. Working with the County of Fresno and the Sierra National Forest, a Tree Mortality Task Force was created, bringing together all local stakeholders and fire safe councils in a collaborative effort to protect our citizens, communities and infrastructure within the foothills and mountains of eastern Fresno County.
Cal Fire worked with the county to secure millions of dollars in grant funding for the removal of dead hazard trees along county roads in eastern Fresno County and worked cooperatively with the Sierra National Forest on a coordinated effort to strengthen and expand existing fuel breaks. Caltrans also spent millions removing hazard trees along highways 168, 180 and 245 corridors.
Since Jan. 1, 2015, Cal Fire has used prescribed fire on 2,735 acres in Fresno County, and done fuel reduction work on 2,807 acres of breaks in and around our mountain communities. That work amounts to 37,371 personnel hours and 25,775 hours of equipment use that includes operation of masticators, chippers and other heavy equipment. Cal Fire also has approximately 12 other vegetation management projects with private land owners totaling 29,085 acres, and eight other fuels reduction/fire control road projects totaling 2,705 acres.
In March of this year under the direction of Gov. Newsom, Cal Fire identified 35 high priority fuels reduction projects. Five of those projects are in and around the Shaver Lake and Meadow Lakes areas of Fresno County. The Beal and Musick fuel breaks, Rush Creek, Shaver Springs, and Blue Rush fuel break/reduction projects were identified in a report to the governor and work is currently underway to complete these projects, totaling 1,011 acres, by Jan. 1, 2020.
Cal Fire has also been working closely with two 20-person crews from the California Army National Guard who have been assigned to assist with these and other fuels reduction projects in Fresno County.
Cal Fire and the Fresno County Fire Protection District have a long history of cooperative fire protection. In 1948-49, after several destructive fires, the voters of Fresno County voted to form the Mid-Valley Fire Protection District. The district contracted with Cal Fire — then CDF — to provide the personnel to respond to emergencies within the district with the district’s fire engines.
In 1992 Mid-Valley merged with the West-Side Fire Protection District that protected Huron and the unincorporated areas around Coalinga to form the Fresno County Fire Protection District.
In 2018, the County of Fresno and the Fresno County Fire Protection District entered into an historic agreement for the Fire District to provide support to the Volunteer Fire Departments in the foothills that were not already supported by tax dollars, and to take emergency response responsibility for those areas of the county that are not covered by any other fire jurisdiction. This includes areas such as most of those west of I-5, and several areas in eastern Fresno County.
To date, the fire district has assisted these non-funded volunteer fire departments with the purchase of much-needed equipment, made repairs on existing equipment and apparatus, and provided training opportunities for volunteers. The district was also able to fund a full-time staffed fire engine out of the Hurley Cal Fire station to assist the mountain volunteer stations faster, and to help cover those unprotected areas, thus improving services/coverage in the most vulnerable areas within the county.
As we head into another fire season, please be mindful of the fire danger that exists and the continued efforts of Cal Fire, Fresno County Fire Protection District and the County of Fresno to keep our communities safe.
Nathan Magsig is Fresno County supervisor for District 5. Mark Johnson is chief of the Cal Fire Fresno-Kings Unit/Fresno County Fire Protection District.