Officials warn fire season is coming
by Denise Ellen Rizzo / Tracy Press
Jun 17, 2011 | 3121 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fire crews knock down a grass fire off Highway 33 on Thursday, June 16, that ignited when a man's riding lawnmower hit a rock. Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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As the once lush green hills of the Altamont transform into dry brush, fire officials warn residents that wildfire season is coming, even if its peak might be a little later than usual.

“Our true high point in Northern California is August through September, but now we’re looking at late September through November,” Tracy Fire Department Division Chief Andy Kellogg said. “They’re projecting a later start, and that will result in a later end.”

The outlook for June and July should be below-typical wildfire activity, due to cooler temperatures and months of rain, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant. He said typically, summertime in Northern California is not peak fire season; that occurs usually during the months of September to October.

The spring’s unseasonal conditions mean vegetation has grown, dried out and grown again, causing layers of heavy fuel, just prime for wildfires, Berlant said.

“More rain doesn’t mean less fires,” he said. “In California, it will dry out, and we will see fires.”

And with hotter weather setting in — daytime highs topped 90 degrees this week, according to AccuWeather — that drying out has definitely begun.

According to Cal Fire statistics, there have been 877 fires this year through May 28, destroying 3,102 acres, which is more than last year at this time, when 527 fires had destroyed 3,022 acres in the same period.

Throughout California in 2010, a total of 6,394 wildfires destroyed 134,462 acres, which was below the five-year average, Berlant said, even though some experts at the time predicted a bad wildfire season.

Last year’s season had the same potential to be extremely bad, but it wasn’t, officials said. The worst wildfire season in California, in recent years, was 2008, which followed two destructive years.

This year, Kellogg said, it will be easy to see if the pieces are coming together to make for a potentially active fire season. The ideal conditions for a wildfire are high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, officials said.

He said nobody knows right now, but Cal Fire, without officially declaring wildfire season, has fully staffed all its Northern California stations, including the one in rural Tracy on Hanson Road.

In mid-April, an annual National Seasonal Assessment workshop gave predictions as to what can be expected across California during wildfire season.

According to the workshop, spring showers in Northern California will have boosted lower-elevation grass crops. Once dry, that flashy fuel load could lead to wind-driven fires from June through early July.

Officials involved in the workshop — including meteorologists, forest service staff and fire behavior analysts — predicted June through August will see a few warmer-than-average stretches, possibly with average temperatures reaching two to five degrees above normal in August. And with precipitation for that three-month period forecast to be below normal, conditions are expected to be very dry.

“Take dry conditions, fuel and add wind, and you’ve got a recipe for wildfires,” Berlant said.

As wildfires are commonly the result of carelessness by humans, it’s those same humans who can often prevent them, officials said.

Each year, Tracy Fire Department conducts a weed abatement program, giving notice to landowners with overgrown properties to clear dry vegetation away from their homes and outbuildings and throughout their properties. State law requires clearing a minimum of 100 feet around any structure, but officials recommend a 300-foot radius, which must have been completed by Wednesday, June 15.

Courtesy non-compliance notices from the local fire department have gone out to more than 60 property owners. If the properties aren’t cleaned up, the owner or owners will receive a certified letter giving them 20 days to clean it. If they still don’t comply, a public hearing will be held with the City Council to approve hiring a private company and billing the landowner at a later date.

“It’s a city program to alleviate the city of properties that have not been maintained, which represent a danger to the city,” said Germane Friends, a Tracy fire division chief.

He said 256 landowners received notices last year, and the city hired contractors to clean up more than 15 properties at an average cost of $1,000 each, not including a 25 percent administration fee.

“We have a limited budget to try and mitigate a huge problem,” Friends said. “It becomes part of a recipe for disaster. They can comply or add to the problem (of fire hazards).”

To further prepare for wildfire season, Tracy firefighters conduct annual field burns with crews from other San Joaquin County agencies, including Manteca, Lathrop-Manteca and the Depots. Starting today, June 17, fire crews will practice burning and extinguishing overgrown weeds and grasses in and around Tracy Municipal Airport.

But it won’t be until the end of fall that a verdict on this year’s fire season can really be rendered.

“Given the conditions, it could be one of the worst California wildland fire seasons in history, but we say that every year,” Kellogg said. “It’s a gamble. It depends on the weather. We’re fully ready.”
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