Fire season flares early
by Denise Ellen Rizzo
May 10, 2013 | 1519 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Several firefighting agencies, including Tracy, were part of a team of more than 400 firefighters battling a wildfire in Ventura County. Courtesy photo
Several firefighting agencies, including Tracy, were part of a team of more than 400 firefighters battling a wildfire in Ventura County. Courtesy photo
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Wildfire season in California began early this year, and experts predict that this will be one of the worst fire seasons in recorded history, according to Tracy Fire Division Chief Andy Kellogg.

“Fire season officially started May 1, and that doesn’t happen too often,” he said. “This is the first time in my 28 years (as a firefighter) that I remember it happening this early.”

Wildfire season typically runs from late May or early June through November. But due to the increase in recent fire activity, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared May 5 to 11 as Wildfire Awareness Week.

The objective of the declaration is to alert residents to take proper precautions.

“The conditions right now are what we should be experiencing in June,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire director, in a press release issued Monday, May 6. “This year’s dry winter has resulted in a significant increase in fire activity.”

According to the state’s final snow survey of the year on May 2, the statewide snowpack water content is only 17 percent of normal, according to the release.

From January to May 2, nearly 23,000 acres burned in California, which is significantly more than the 1,250 acres that burned during the same time period in 2012.

Kellogg said a combination of a lack of rain and sporadic vegetation growth has created the dangerous conditions.

He said random rain showers in Tracy, such as those that occurred Monday, cause the vegetation to grow a little and then go dormant, creating a layered effect.

“It seems in the last couple of years fire activity (in the Tracy area) has been low,” he said. “So areas where we normally get wildland fires we didn’t get them, such as the foothills. We have 4 feet to 5 feet of tall grass and over 4 inches to 6 inches of a grass undercoat.”

Officials of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, had predicted in April that there would be an accelerated fire season “nearly a month ahead of schedule” in California.

Kellogg, the mutual aid coordinator for San Joaquin County strike teams, said he got a call Friday, May 3, asking for 250 teams to go south to battle the Springs Fire in Ventura County.

Capt. Dan Havicus, engineer Rubin Cortinas and firefighters Nate Howell and Wes Goeppert of the Tracy Fire Department would join firefighters from Manteca, Stockton, Lodi and Woodbridge, according to strike leader Capt. Scott Arganbright.

“The first day we were there was the most active day,” Arganbright said. “We got dispatched at 1 a.m. on Friday morning and we got down there about 10:45 a.m. and deployed at 1:30 p.m.”

After the fire burned to the Pacific Ocean, a shift in the wind sent it back toward the Thousand Oaks area, where Tracy firefighters were stationed to protect structures on Hidden Valley Road, he said.

“We had a good opportunity to save the structures, because homeowners in the area prepared their property,” he said.

Surrounded by trees and heavy brush, crew members saw the fire come right up to them, Arganbright said, as it continued to destroy thousands of acres.

“We caught the head of the fire, probably 50-foot to 75-foot flames at times, and stopped it,” he said.

By Tuesday, the fire had burned about 28,000 acres but was 90 percent contained, according to Cal Fire officials.

Kellogg said local residents can take precautions by keeping weeds and grass trimmed, and rural property owners should clear a minimum of 100 feet between open fields and structures.

The first wildfire in the Tracy area this year occurred Friday, when seven acres were destroyed off Interstate 580 and Patterson Pass, but more are expected.

“It’s highly likely the Altamont and Tracy area will see above-average wild land fires,” he said. “You can expect a lot of black scars on the foothills.”

• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 830-4225 or drizzo@tracypress.com.
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