Dry weather concerns Lassen County Fire Agencies
By this time of year, Lassen County has usually seen more snow and rain, according to Susanville Fire Chief Stu Ratner.
“I can’t remember any season where it hasn’t snowed, and I’ve been here since the 70’s,” said Ratner. “If we don’t start to see more soon, we could be in a lot of trouble come fire season.”
In fact the Lassen/Modoc unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has said they are starting to see problems. Debris fires, even with proper clearance, have sprouted into full-blown multi-acre vegetation fires over the course of this last month. CDF claims that their peak fire season months are July, August and September, but if weather patterns change, they can extend the fire season to include either June or October, even November.
“We work for Mother Nature,” explained CDF Administrative Officer Vince Wall. “The governor tells us what to do and pays our salary, and then Mother Nature dictates our working conditions. We try not to second-guess her too much.”
Wall also explained more than the weather, what can determine a longer and more dangerous fire season is the condition of the three major fire fuel types in the area.
“We basically look at three fuel types: grass, brush and timber,” explained Wall. “If the grass starts drying out and curing the valley early, they’re going to have a greater number of fires on a daily basis.”
Janesville Fire Inspector Jesse Keene and Janesville Assistant Fire Chief Mike Smith both said there might also be a correlation between the year and current weather conditions. They explained that 1977, 1987, and 1997 were all years with similar dry winter conditions, and they all lead to exceptionally bad fire seasons.
“In ’77, we were in the middle of a drought,” Smith said. “That was the first time I ever saw Honey Lake dry up. In ’87, it became real dry and real cold something like 35 degrees below for a couple of weeks. In fact I think we had something like 40 structure fires, because people’s pipes would freeze up. It was a busy time.”
This year, problems are already starting to occur because of how dry it has become. Much of the grass in the region has already gotten to the point where it should be months from now, according to CDF officers Josh White and Paul Trenholm.
Trenholm and White said there have been a lot of small debris fires that have gotten out of control recently, due to the grass and the brush being at the dryness levels they should be in May. The problem, said Trenholm, is that because burn permits aren’t required right now, people aren’t taking the proper precautions when burning their gathered debris. A slight gust of wind under these weather conditions can turn a small pile of burning debris into a 2-acre vegetation fire in almost no time.
“Lately, whenever we go out on calls, we try to educate the people doing the controlled burns at their home,” White said. “If we have to continue responding to the same place, we have to start citing people, because not taking the proper care, even without the need for a burn permit, is a criminal offense.”
The Lassen County fire agencies would like to warn people to be careful with fire. The lack of moisture and the cold conditions can cause trouble when people aren’t careful. Have a good clearance both around debris piles and around heaters that may be used inside any type of structure to keep warm.
Remember, 100-foot clearances from vegetation are required by the county around structures. This is also required by the state. The first 30 feet is a good clearance, and the next 70 feet is good for spacing between trees and brush.
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