Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Wildfires were bad in 2006, but CA crews brace for worse in '07

Feb. 18--On the third day of a controlled burn in Nevada County, flames devoured the dry underbrush with an ease that both satisfied and unsettled Battalion Chief Rob Paulus.

Manzanita bushes burst into 60-foot flames as fire whirled through Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park: a good sign that dead fuels were being eliminated as intended, a bad omen of the destruction a wildfire in these lands would leave in its wake.

"If I was a betting man," Paulus says, "I'd bet on a dry spring, early fire season."

Even with February rains breaking the January dry spell, this winter's bone-dry record has Paulus and his colleagues in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concerned about the 2007 fire season.

Coming on the heels of 2006 -- a terrible year in terms of acres burned by California wildfires -- some in the fire service worry that unforgiving weather conditions and long-term factors such as brush buildup could portend worse for 2007.

"If we don't get the rain, 2006 is going to look like a walk in the park," said Paulus, a battalion chief in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit of CAL FIRE, the abbreviation now replacing CDF.

The two agencies primarily responsible for fighting wildfires in California -- CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service -- reported an upsurge in acreage burned in 2006.

In the 23.5 million acres for which CAL FIRE is directly responsible, 5,963 fires burned 221,607 acres, far surpassing 2005 and the five-year average. Last year's acreage was overshadowed only by 2003, an infamous year that saw more than 404,000 acres burned, according to CAL FIRE.

In the 20 million acres of U.S. Forest Service park land in California, 1,888 fires charred 453,500 acres in 2006. That's the third-highest acreage burned in a year over the last 20, said spokesman Matt Mathes.

Officials say various factors led to such destruction, the first being weather. Rains came early and heavy, followed by a premature spring and the growth of a lush forest understory that dried out quickly. A sizzling summer almost unbearable for humans proved particularly hospitable to fire.

But long-term factors contributed as well, such as dense tree stands and overgrowth of low-to-the-ground fire fuels -- product of a decades-long philosophy of fire suppression, officials said.

A public backlash against years of logging in California began in the 1970s. In championing preservation, taxpayers, legislators and fire officials campaigned not only against wildfires but any kind of surrogate, such as the thinning of forests, Mathes said. They were successful -- in stomping out fire and throwing the forests out of whack.

"Smokey the Bear did too good a job," Mathes said. "In retrospect, we're seeing (fire officials at the time) were well-intentioned, but probably too overzealous in greatly reducing the role of fire in an ecosystem that desperately wants to burn -- and needs to burn to restore itself."

The overgrowth on the forest floor has had two significant consequences when fire strikes, officials said. First, flames spread rapidly, charging through dense vegetation. Second, the underbrush creates what firefighters call a "ladder," allowing fire to climb from the ground to treetops. Such "crown fires" nearly always prove fatal to trees that might otherwise go unscathed.

Such conditions can quickly create unmanageable fires.

"We are able to stop 98 percent of fires at 300 acres or less," Mathes said of the Forest Service. "What we're seeing is that more and more, the fires that get big get really big and defy control."

That worries not only firefighters, but environmentalists like state parks forester Rich Adams. Though respectful of fire's importance in nature, he recognizes that a wildfire in Malakoff Diggins or his surrounding Sierra District -- where fire has been absent for decades -- would not be restorative, but crippling.

"Fires are burning 5,000 acres in five hours," Adams said. "We could lose our whole park in a day."

Meanwhile, more and more Californians have been leaving urban centers for the "wildland-urban interface," CAL FIRE-protected lands where cities meet rural landscapes. As a result, officials have seen an exponential rise in the devastation left by wildfires, said Chris Dicus, a forestry and wildfire expert at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

"Fire sees vegetation as fuel," he said. "It also sees million-dollar homes as fuel."

Not only has that human migration put structures and lives in the path of fire, officials say, it also has increased the risk of fire. About two-thirds of blazes fought by CAL FIRE in 2006 were caused by humans or their devices. With the ignition source drawing closer to the fuels, more fires are burning.

"It's definitely a cause-and-effect," said CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant.

All these factors, combined with a dry winter , have many in the fire service concerned that the worst is yet to come.

January set a record for lack of rainfall in the Sacramento area. And only 7.29 inches of rain have fallen since July 1; 13.35 inches is normal.

The drought has been mirrored elsewhere, with dryness prompting early fires. As of Feb. 11, 1,653 acres had burned in CAL FIRE-protected lands statewide, compared with 94 in the same period last year and a five-year average of 1,540.

Fire officials note that weather is unpredictable, and it is too early to predict what kind of fire season California will suffer. But firefighters like Paulus are nonetheless heeding the early warning signs.

They are increasing the amount of controlled burning, and stressing to residents the importance of protecting their homes.

"People are going to move from the Bay Area to Auburn because it's beautiful. But we do have to educate them," Berlant said. "This is fire territory, and you have to live with fire."

Because in California -- a state synonymous with wildfires -- "it's not a matter of if," Paulus says, "but when."


Copyright (c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.

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