USA — In response to Santa Cruz County’s driest year on record, Cal Fire is staffing extra crews and mobilizing additional engines.
There have been 31 wildfires reported for November and December, a six-fold increase from the typical four to five in any other year, said Rich Sampson, division chief for Cal Fire.
“For us to start seeing vegetation fires at the end of December, that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “Last time that happened was in 1961 and they had a 3,000-acre fire in the Gazos Creek Drainage area on the county line.”
Rainfall averages for the second half of the year are typically 15 inches, Sampson said. For the same period this year, the average is 2.5 inches.
The response includes keeping investigators on hand at 24/7 to ensure there are no illegal fires, keeping two crews in staffed in Ben Lomond as opposed to none and having all-terrain engines ready to go.
During winter months, Cal Fire usually keeps fire engines typically used for house fires, medical calls and car accidents, Sampson said. But with the increased danger of wildfires, officials are opting to keep summer engines, which are used to battle fires in rough terrain.
Factors that lead to the decision to increase staffing and keep extra engines on hand include the dry weather and the recent wildfire that devastated the Big Sur area. The Big Sur fire, which raged for days and destroyed dozens of homes and more than 900 acres, drew roughly 1,000 firefighters from around the state.
While showers in November raised the moisture content in plants and a respite from the fire danger, moisture levels dropped dangerously low again because of the lack of rain.
A burn ban is expected to be put in place until there is significant rainfall to offset the fire danger. The ban will bar any type of fire other than campfires and warming fires, Sampson said.
At this time of the year, when some homeowners are burning excess brush or other debris, there wouldn’t be a danger because the surrounding area would be green and full of moisture. But with the drought conditions, a small spark could lead to a destructive wildfire, Sampson said.
“As soon as a fire or spark gets out (now), it starts a big fire and it takes off,” he said.
He added that the vegetation is drier now than it was on the Fourth of July.
“They expect during the holiday season that they don’t need to be fire safe but they do,” Sampson said. “We fully expect people to be off shooting fireworks New Year’s Eve and, with the fuel conditions the way they are, it’ll be dangerous like in the Fourth of July.”