Cal Fire: Massive, destructive wildfires is new normal

Changes are happening to the way firefighters get ready for wildfire season, starting with more prevention activities.

Cal Fire says over the last few years, they've seen fewer fires but ones that were far more devastating and larger in size.

In order to tackle these devastating wildfires, Cal Fire, along with federal and local agencies, are working to make changes in their Strategic Fire Plan.

By looking at the short term and long term history of wildfires, officials revised the plan that was last released in 2010. Officials said they are also working on a draft for 2018.

This year, officials say the emphasis is on pre-fire activity, like vegetation management and fire prevention activities.

Cal Fire Captain Nick Wallingford, a pre-fire engineer, said prescribed fires have been absent in their department for the last 20 years, so they're having to relearn the process in a quick and efficient manner.

"This is the new normal. This is not one bad fire season, we have had multiple seasons year after year and there's no reason not to believe that this trend will not continue," said Wallingford.

Wallingford added that over the years, they have always been aggressive on suppression, but this year the plan has taken a shift with an emphasis on treating natural resources and vegetation. Part of that is reintroducing fire into the landscape as a natural part of the ecosystem.

"Living in California, our ecosystem has adapted to fire throughout the last 100 years, largely due to human interaction. We have eliminated fire from the ecosystem and the result is the tremendous part of fuel build up," said Wallingford. "You can see behind me, having 15-foot Manzanita, this is not a natural fuel condition, this is an example of fire exclusion from the landscape."

"You look at the flame length coming off that Manzanita, minimum is going to be 20 feet, probably 40 feet long," added Shane Larsen, Cal Fire Forester.

Crews were working on a 88 acre strategic fuel break, located southwest of Shingletown, in an area where they would expect a fire to travel towards the community. They brought in heavy equipment to grind up the Manzanita into tiny sticks and wood chips.

The goal of the fuel break was to rearrange the fuel on the ground so that flames would not be able to grow to such a large size, making the fire easier to fight.

Wallingford said the last three fire seasons have set records for numbers of structures destroyed and lives lost. Wallingford added that residents should not think that if they live in a low risk area, that this can't happen to them.

"Previously deemed as low risk areas have suffered incredible destruction, being the City of Santa Rosa, Middletown, and the City of Weed. We have had three fire seasons in a row where multiple fires have hit densely populated areas, again, areas that we have deemed as lower risk."

According to Cal Fire, 2017 was one of the worst fire seasons on record:

  • More than 9,000 fires statewide
  • More than 1.5 million acres burned
  • Cost of suppression: $701,844,181
  • Personnel on scene: More than 277,800
  • Structures damaged and destroyed: More than 11,953
  • 46 wildfire fatalities

Larsen explained that they need help fighting fires.

"It's really up to the homeowners to be prepared ahead of time. All the time, regardless of the weather or drought conditions. it's really that work that they do ahead of time that really determines if we can save their home or not in the event of a wildfire."

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