Fire risk is high; Three dry winters have officials fearing the worst
Williams Fire Protection District Chief Jeff Gilbert had this to offer amid the abnormally dry conditions persisting into this month:
"Even thought it's winter, there is the lack of precipitation."
"Be aware of local restrictions from CalFire and local agencies."
"If you're camping, be aware that there might be regulations by the Forrest Service on campfires. If you can have a campfire, have a plan and water available in case something happens."
— Brian Pearson
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the drought gripping Colusa County. On Jan. 1, the Sun-Herald looked at the impact of the drought on ranchers. Upcoming stories include general agriculture and the economy.
With fuel moisture percentage at near-summer conditions and the cumulative effects of three drier-than-average winters, the fire danger in Northern California persists into the new year and could create a long and intense fire season.
"We have had winters start off dry before, but this winter there's a lot more concern because of the cumulative effect of the past three winters, which have been drier than average," said Brooke Bingaman, a fire weather forecaster with the National Weather Service office in Sacramento. "Even if we get the weather, we're not sure it can make up for the early lack of rain from this winter or the lack of rain over the past three winters."
According to Bingaman, who cited the climate prediction center of the National Weather Service, January does not promise to bring the rain sorely needed by farmers, ranchers and fire protection agencies.
"There is already a forecast of lower-than-average precipitation for the month of January," Bingaman said.
Bingaman added there was not yet a strong enough signal for February and March. She said there was an equal chance of the precipitation levels being average, higher than average, or lower than average in those months. Bingaman said a number of elements go into calculating fire risk, including moisture in the air, moisture in the fuels, and winds. One of those elements — the fuel moisture percentage — is very low for this time of year.
"It is dry enough that we're near summer conditions," Bingaman said.
During the past week, the dry conditions were exacerbated by "breezy to gusty winds in some areas," which Bingaman said helped contribute to the 450-acre Campbell Fire burning in the Ishi Wilderness Area in Tehema County.
The low-fuel moisture percentage and lack of precipitation have local fire protection authorities worried.
"I was too young in the 1976 drought. But I can't remember anything being this dry (at this time of year) in my 30 years of fire service," said Jeff Gilbert, fire chief of the Williams Fire Protection District. "Stonyford is at 10 percent of moisture. It should be at 100 or so by now. The frosts suck the moisture out of any of the grass. The hard frost has just really beat it up."
"Field moisture is critically low. It's dry," said local CalFire Battalion Chief Mark Gradek.
Gradek said that the number of winter fires was "still on track" with a normal year, something that he attributed to shorter days and a smaller window for fire ignition.
"With days being short, the window for fires is somewhat dimished. The window for fires closed down. But the larger number of warmer north wind patterns — that hasn't helped us." Gradek said.
Gradek said the risk remained uncharacteristically high for January.
"The danger of a fire now versus a normal January is much higher due to the lack of rain," Gradek said.
Human carelessness and a lack of situational awareness can be major problems during such a dry winter.
"People let their guard down. Burn bans get lifted, and next thing you know, we've got a burn out of control. People think 'it's winter' and don't think about the lack of precipitation," Gilbert said.
Winter draw-down concerning
"The biggest issue we have right now is that CalFire is on such a draw down, they're going to have to go out to local governments for resources," Gilbert said. "We all work out of regions. If they are overwhelmed, CalFire goes to NorthOps out of Redding. They get ahold of me or the other county coordinators to get a strike team together. You lose a lot of air-fight staff. They ordered six for (the Campbell Fire), and I'm not sure you can find six more in the state."
Gilbert explained that CalFire staffs 20-24 engines in fire season, a number that goes down to eight when the season ends, but added that they were trying to keep as much staff as possible until there was "good, measurable precipitation."
"I just talked to a CalFire Battalion, and they're afraid of burning their guys out," Gilbert said of the limited staff. "It's a whole different aspect. They're not used to seeing stuff like this."
"We've laid off the seasonal guys and have gone to our winter month staffing." Gradek confirmed. "We finally laid the seasonals off on Dec. 9."
That date, according to Gradek, was unprecedented.
"(The fire season) was a lot longer than normal. We send those guys home in mid-November usually, at the latest." Gradek said. He added, however, that being a statewide agency, they could muster staff "pretty fast."
Meanwhile, Gilbert said, local governments and volunteers will shoulder some of the load.
"When CalFire packs up, they don't come back until May. It's so valuable to have our volunteers in Arbuckle, Williams, Maxwell and Indian Valley/Bear Valley." Gilbert said. "It's the same thing with the forrest service in Stonyford. CalFire and local government response is so valuable in the foothills."
The vigilance required by local agencies does not come without consequences. The winter months are typically the time of year in which fire departments conduct necessary maintenance on their engines and equipment, something Gilbert said he has been unable to do.
"This is the time of year we're supposed to be doing maintenance (on fire engines), but I can't take them out of service. I can't afford to have them down." Gilbert said.
Implications for the upcoming fire season
While rainfall would increase the fuel moisture percentage in the short term, the long-term implications for the upcoming dry season remain uncertain.
Gilbert said fuel moisture percentages are rated on the size (in diameter) of the fuels: flash fuels include grasses, medium fuels equate to brush, and the big stuff — 1,000-hour fuels, such as timber. The 1,000-hour fuels are very dry, Gilbert said.
"Even with normal rainfall from here to Aril, (the fuels) dry out again in May," Gilbert said. "You're going to have a hard time for fuel moistures."
If the lack of rain persists, what amounts to a curse for ranchers and range animals — the lack of grasses (flash fuels) — could paradoxically end up being a boon to the fire season.
"Out here, locally, in the foothills, there's going to be no grass to burn," Gilbert said. "Flash fuels are needed generally to get the heavier fuels started, unless you have someone setting a fire intentionally."
"The way it is now, we don't have any grass for fire season. Especially in Colusa County, large amounts have already been grazed off. If we don't get grass for next year, we won't have the fuel for fires to get started," Gradek said.
There are a number of concerns for the upcoming fire season, should it prove to be an active one, said Gilbert.
"Down the road, up in the foothills, there are lot of ponds and man-made lakes. If they don't fill up then the air-fight — the helicopters — don't have a place to fill up when they're fighting a fire up there. That could have a huge effect on the size the fire is going to end up being," Gilbert said.
Gilbert is concerned about the erratic conditions it creates for firefighters.
"The other concerns with the dry fuels is going to be our safety. It showed in Arizona (what can happen in erratic conditions). Look at those north winds you had in November and early December. Lake County was running fires every day."
Possible reprieve in the short term
Bingaman noted a small weather system was making its way to California, and in terms of fire risk, the conditions had already begun to improve as of Monday.
"Even though the system looks weak and rains may not actually come through the area, winds will be low and the relative humidity will rise," Bingaman said.
She said the lowest relative humidity between Sunday night and Monday morning was between 10 and 20 percent, with winds up to 20 mph. The relative humidity as of 10:30 a.m. Monday had increased, getting up to 59 percent with winds at only a couple of miles per hour.
"These are indications that the conditions are improving," said Bingaman.