Fire season becoming year-round concern

Fire season becoming year-round concern

8 May 2009

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A pile of sticks bakes next to Junction Ranger Station every summer day.

Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, State Park Ranger Carl Nielson hangs the weather-beaten pine dowels on a hook to weigh them. The sticks grow heavier when they absorb moisture. They become lighter when the moisture evaporates.

And if they get too light, Nielson makes a phone call and shuts down Mt. Diablo State Park.

Nothing much to managing fire season, eh?

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Nielson laughs.

Fire season means little work for the general public. Once it begins, most property owners know to keep their weeds trimmed and avoid shooting bottle rockets at grassy hillsides, but little else.

But fire season means a lot of work for firefighters. Departments shape months of training, planning and budgets around it. Homes, even lives, depend on these predictions and preparations for the hot season. And all levels of government devote more attention to its study every year.

“Fire season is what the vegetation tells us it is. It’s not a date on the calendar,” said Rick Everett, eyeing a steep slope of curing grasses. “When you’re exposed to this every day … you can actually see the fuel curing out. You start hearing crinkling and crackling as you walk around.”

Everett lives at Russell Research Station, a 280-acre parcel that, if neglected, would rapidly transform into one of the Bay Area’s biggest fire hazards. Dense groves festoon the place, including large stands of short-lived Monterey pines that lean, sag and even collapse as they age, creating tons of potential wildfire fuel less than a mile from multimillion-dollar houses on the ridges north of Lafayette.

UC Berkeley inherited the former Christmas tree farm in the 1960s, and for years it served as a backdrop for botanical study. But these days, the university’s Center for Forestry occupies the land, with fire science the chief topic of research. Everett currently studies the beneficial effects of controlled fire on different parts of the land.

That’s knowledge of increasing interest to fire officials in suburban Contra Costa and Alameda counties, where fingers of residential development mesh with open space. Agencies working with postdoctoral researchers such as Everett to develop better practices for predicting and preventing catastrophic fires include local fire departments, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), the East Bay Regional Park District, the East Bay Municipal Utility District and even the National Park Service.

Technology investment

Fire services already invest heavily in predictive technology. For example, 11 Remote Automated Weather Stations, or RAWS, squat like lunar landers on the hills and ridges of the East Bay, sampling relative humidity, air temperature and precipitation and transmitting the data via satellite.

“They can forecast with something like 60 percent confidence what is going to happen with large-scale weather models,” said Assistant Fire Chief John Swanson of the Regional Park District, “and we use that information to help inform ourselves about what we’re going to be facing when we step out of the engine.”

Weather data from around the state combined with historical records and measurement of the dryness of grass and brush allow local agencies to assess hazards from hour to hour and provide better-informed responses to emergency calls.

The data also help agencies such as the park district decide which days during the hot season merit 24-hour staffing.

While the state budget plans for fire season to begin June 15, actual conditions dictate how and when fire departments prepare. In the East Bay, agencies began eyeing the hillsides weeks ago.

“We’re out driving around,” said Rob Van Wormer, a battalion chief with CalFire, “watching the grass change from emerald green, to neon green, to kind of yellow, to golden.”

This season’s forecast from the state includes more bleak news for the Bay Area: above-normal risk for large fires across Northern California, with a dry spring and below-normal precipitation allowing grasses and other “fast fuel” to cure three to five weeks sooner than most years.

Junction Ranger Station on Mount Diablo seems a perfectly fine spot to watch the fast fuel cure. And while Nielson’s pine sticks may seem primitive, they remain an accepted tool for measuring brush moisture.

Modern technology performs more complex tasks. The Contra Costa Fire District, for example, uses laser imaging from satellites to develop detailed maps that show the groupings of trees and brush throughout the region. Those maps predict down to within a few feet the likely behavior of wildfire, and show spatial relationships between development and those areas with the highest risk.

Experience still matters

But nature remains unpredictable. So no empirical measure can replace the experience of firefighters familiar with local topography, access, weather patterns and plant life. And no fire department can shield the public without its active participation.

For that reason, local departments try to engage property owners every year about protecting themselves from wildfire, particularly in woodsier neighborhoods.

“All models are wrong,” said George Laing, an inspector for Contra Costa Fire, “though some are useful.”

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