The Fourth of July, with its potentially wildfire-causing pyrotechnics, has come and gone, largely without a loss of life. But let’s not exhale quite yet.
Fire season – or the height of what has become California’s new, flammable normal – is just getting started.
That begs the question: Are we prepared?
Does California have enough firefighters in place? Enough fire engines? Enough helicopters with enough buckets of water and fire-suppressant chemicals to contain blazes before they explode into the 2015 version of the devastating Rim fire?
While we wish we could be more bullish, the answer, unfortunately, is somewhere in between “maybe” and “we really, really hope so.”
That’s because fire departments – from volunteers, to cities, to counties, all the way to Cal Fire – are still recovering from budget cuts meted out after the recession. While some have secured grants and increases from the state, the reliability of financial lifelines has been spotty.
The result is an uneven landscape of preparedness, something that should be of grave concern to lawmakers given the tinderbox that California has become, thanks to the drought, population increases and questionable forest management practices that suppressed fires. While firefighters will arrive en masse to battle blazes, the response may be slower and less robust than it was a decade ago.
There have been 3,100 brush fires this year, 800 more than by this time in 2014.
Some departments are doing OK. Some departments aren’t doing so hot.
In Eureka, for example, the Humboldt Bay Fire Department had to shutter one of its stations on July 1 and warn residents that another station would close periodically through the end of the year. Los Angeles is down city firefighters. And Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, thanks to a limited line of federal funding, was in better fiscal shape last year than it is this year.
Meanwhile, things are heating up.
There have been about 3,100 brush fires this year – 800 more than by this time in 2014. This includes a fire in the Rio Linda area of Sacramento and a four-alarm, wind-fueled fire that broke out in Vacaville on July 4, prompting evacuations but no deaths.
In the Sierra, dead and dying trees worry officials in the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. To make matters worse, it’s getting harder to find water for aerial firefighting.
Ranchers are more protective of water on their property. Wells have run dry because of the drought. And in places like the Emerald Triangle, where marijuana farmers drain streams and rivers at an alarming rate, bodies of water have all but dried up.
“It’s just one of those things that the drought has forced us to think about,” said Carroll Wills, communications director of the California Professional Firefighters. “Who thinks there’s not going to be water available?”
It’s not surprising then that Cal Fire is bracing for a summer of megafires. So be careful out there.