It’s been months since the North State’s last appreciable rain. Grasses and shrubs in the valley and low foothills are already tinder dry. Intense summer is quickly desiccating vegetation higher up.
As California’s fire season begins in earnest, NSPR’s Marc Albert checked in with Cal Fire Butte County spokesman Rick Carhart about projections that firefighters will be very busy across a wider area than recent years, while COVID-19 idles one of Cal Fire’s key weapons: inmate fire crews.
He started their conversation by remarking that so far, this doesn’t feel like a particularly active season, but that could probably change in an instant.
Here are highlights from their conversation. You can also listen at the top of the page.
On how destructive the season could be
The conditions are ripe for the possibility of a very destructive fire season. I have not looked at the numbers in the last few days, but the last I checked, we had actually had, throughout all of Cal Fire statewide, we had had close to twice as many fires reported as we had at that same time last year, but very similar acreage from last year. So having quite a bit, quite a few more fires, but they're smaller overall. Now, as far as the conditions, it's very dry and with the winter conditions that we had, it's conducive to grass growth, but not grass growth containing a whole bunch of moisture. You know, that fact, there's growth of fuel out there, but it still takes an ignition to start a fire. So that's the big key is that no matter what the conditions are, it's always the possibility of a busy destructive fire season, and it just depends on, do the fire start? And where do they start? And what are the weather conditions going on when they start?
On how the COVID-19 outbreak in prisons has been affecting the availability of inmate fire crews
Well, it's a challenge that we're working through as a state agency. We are obviously well aware of the fact that a number of the fire crews that we would normally count on are not available at the moment. But we have put in place things around that too, to get around it. For now, we have made some of our seasonal firefighter one rehires, we've sort of made them into hand crews, so that they can cover some of the slack. And there are just a number of other things that we're working on, that we're doing to continue our mission which is to keep 95% of all fire starts in the States under 10 acres.
On whether fires are still expected this year up to 6,000 feet as previously predicted
Yeah, I mean, the higher elevations are contingent on the snowpack, which there's very little of, if any, at this point. The conditions up at altitude are bordering on the extreme as well as they are down in the lower elevations, like in a typical fire year. So yeah, we definitely have the potential out there for a very dangerous and destructive fire season, which is why we've been trying to be hammering home the point to take care of yourself, make sure that you're being responsible. When you're using powered equipment, make sure that you're doing it on days where it's not excessively windy and make sure you get finished with that stuff, with running those powered tools, before 10 o'clock in the morning. That's when the temperatures really start to rise and the humidity really starts to go down. Basically, we have a campaign — it's called One Less Spark. And really, this year is a perfect year for that really aptly named campaign.
On how staffing affects their ability to quickly put out fires
So right now we are at our peak staffing. All of our seasonal firefighters have already been rehired. And so they are at work. And so we're fully staffed. We've got all of our engines staffed that we need and all of our stations staff that we need, which gives us a really good firefighting force. And so we don't have strike teams, which can take easily five engines and 15 or more firefighters out of the unit. When we don't have those conditions where we have strike teams away, those are all in the county at the stations ready to go. And so...
They can respond quicker, get on scene faster and put it out before it gets out of control.
Yep, yep. So that combined with the fact that wherever we've seen the fire start, at times have not been conducive to fast growth. Other ones we have and we've just gotten that done a really good job of getting up at scene. And the other thing too, is that since we haven't had big campaign fires going on, we've had access to aircraft as well and that makes a huge difference whether they come from the Chico Air Attack Base in our unit or whether they come from the surrounding areas. We've been able to use aircraft as well to keep the fires from spreading.
On what drives people to commit arson
Really our investigators take everything on a case-by-case basis. And so you know, the motivations of each individual person who decides to set a fire are what they are, but we don't necessarily really track any trends with that. Basically it's really business as usual for our investigators.
And that's exactly why Cal Fire has fire prevention investigators who are law enforcement, so they're able to make arrests rather than having to call in like the local sheriff's or the local municipal police stations to make those arrests. We've got our own investigators who are law enforcement officers who are able to take care of those things immediately at scene and not have to involve other agencies.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.