American River Parkway fires are bigger and more frequent

The American River Parkway is the crown jewel of Sacramento, a 23-mile stretch of forests, beaches, bike paths and hiking trails used by countless visitors each year.

It is also bone dry, and causing unprecedented headaches for area firefighters this year.

“We’ve had more multi-alarm fires in the last six months than we did in the last two years combined,” Sacramento Fire Department spokesman and firefighter Roberto Padilla said Friday.

Parkway advocates say firefighters have responded to 24 fires – 14 in the city jurisdiction alone – in the first half of the year, including blazes that have erupted from the unusually dry conditions caused by California’s historic drought.

“We’ve noticed a spike in grass fires ... and the reason people are noticing is because in the past it would be a 2- or 3-acre fire and then we would get a hold of it,” Padilla said. “Now, you’re talking about 160 acres, like the Cal Expo fire (on July 4).

“The fire behavior is extremely explosive, and the concern for us is these are wildland-type fires in urban settings.”

There is nothing new about grass fires along the parkway. They happen every year – and most are started by humans, either accidentally or as arson. But this year, some area firefighters are particularly concerned about the potential for fires to burn larger and more quickly than in previous years.

So far this year, more than 200 parkway acres have burned, about the same amount that burned over the previous 18 months. With the peak of fire season coming in late August, the situation has left fire officials and parkway advocates debating what methods should be used to reduce the threat of fires, and whether a comprehensive plan should be drawn up to clear out underbrush before it ignites.

The immediate response by firefighters has been to knock down a blaze as rapidly as possible, because of the extreme conditions. Padilla said the Sacramento Fire Department is deploying four firefighters per engine rather than the typical three to make more force available to stop blazes, and the department is deploying additional resources much more quickly than in the past.

In the case of the Cal Expo fire, which burned up to the levee behind the state fairgrounds, the first firefighters dispatched called for additional help before they even arrived because of the size of the smoke column, Padilla said.

“We struck a second alarm before anyone even got there,” he said.

The causes of the fires are the same as in past years – almost invariably they’re caused by humans. The county estimates that the parkway is visited 5 million times a year by parkway users; other estimates put the figure as high as 8 million. With that many visitors, the potential for fire is high, and almost anything can spark a blaze – a campfire set by homeless people, a barbecue set up on an island by weekend visitors, a cigarette butt carelessly discarded.

“There’s just a lot of activity on the parkway,” Padilla said.

In the past, firefighters simply went out to the parkway and knocked down whatever blazes they found. But now they are debating whether more preventive methods should be employed, including building more firebreaks, using bulldozers to clear weeds and brush and, possibly, using controlled burns.

“We believe strongly that some sort of fuel management or eradication needs to be considered,” Padilla said. “There are groups that are opposed to doing certain things, but we feel they’ve been misinformed.”

Parkway advocates say they want to see details of any fuel reduction plans before deciding what the best approach is for the future.

“There’s no question that firebreaks are a good idea and that some overgrown areas could be cleaned out,” said Stephen Green, president of the Save the American River Association. “We are totally opposed to controlled burns in the parkway. It’s too easy for embers to fly out of the burn and ignite weeds or the roof of a house.”

Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation, said she has not heard of any concrete proposal to use controlled burns to reduce fire danger on the parkway, and that any comprehensive plan for the area has to be carefully balanced to take into account the need for recreation and flood control.

“The parkway’s unique in that it is a recreation area where you’ve got 8 million visitors a year,” she said. “So how do you blend all the concerns that cyclists, runners, the kayakers and nature lover and animal lovers have? Plus, it’s a flood conveyance zone.”

The bottom line, Poggetto said, is that parkway users have to be extra vigilant. “We’re faced with a really, really dry year this year,” she said.

Battalion Chief Chris Quinn of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District said his department has not yet seen an uptick in parkway fire in its jurisdiction in the county.

“I would say so far it appears to be a fairly routine summer,” Quinn said.

But, Quinn added, the department has continued its aggressive weed abatement program along the parkway to cut out excess fire fuel, especially the invasive yellow star thistle, which has been the target of eradication efforts for years.

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