Fire officials countywide preparing for the drought’s worst

‘This may be the first time ever where our fire season just continues through to the next’

mfountain@thetribunenews.comJanuary 30, 2014 

Pilot Robert Pixton returns to the Paso Robles airport on Jan. 22 after a training mission in an S-2T tanker. Pilots are required to fly at regular intervals to maintain proficiency. Winters usually bring a hiatus, but not this year.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Faced with one of the worst droughts in California history, unseasonably high temperatures and moisture levels resembling the peak of fire season, local fire agencies are preparing for a worst-case scenario.

“This may be the first time ever where our fire season just continues through to the next,” county Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin said Wednesday. “Our typical fire seasons are bad enough, but even if we get rain, the already-low fuel-moisture levels greatly increase the volatility of fires.”

On Tuesday, Cal Fire announced it has hired 125 supplemental firefighters in Northern California and extended seasonal firefighting forces because of the drought.

During the summer fire season, Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo County staffs 67 seasonal firefighters. Currently, 21 remain on staff and 11 more are expected to be brought on in February with state authorization.

“It’s been a chore because the seasonal firefighters are only essentially able to work nine months a year according to the rules, but we’ve figured how to hire them as emergency workers,” Lewin said. “This is because of the extraordinary conditions.”

The statewide agency also announced Tuesday it has pledged resources to keep open four air attack bases in Southern and Central California — including Cal Fire’s base in Paso Robles — that would normally close in winter.

The announcement allows for eight air tankers and four tactical aircraft to be immediately available whenever needed.

The Paso Robles base — important because of its central location in the state and its long runway allowing for larger planes — would normally cease operations in November.

The base is currently housing four Douglas DC-7s, historic transport aircraft popular prior to the advent of the Boeing 707, that can each carry 3,000 gallons of water. The base’s normal Grumman S-2 planes carry a maximum load of 1,200 gallons each.

The added resources come as the county reaches dangerous conditions. Lewin said that a 60 percent fuel-moisture level is considered dire — the level is now about 55 percent.

The threat boils down to two problems: Extremely low moisture in areas of vegetation and dry windy conditions, especially strong offshore winds. Combine those factors, and it creates the potential for catastrophic events such as the recent wildfire in Big Sur and the Colby Fire in Los Angeles County.

Lewin said brush areas  — particularly near homes — are of special concern. He said the agency is monitoring areas such as Cambria, west Atascadero, the Cuesta Grade and everything on the west side of the coastal mountains.

As Cal Fire monitors fire danger, it also is taking steps to meet a state mandate that each station cut back water consumption by 20 percent. Stations are typically in rural areas dependent on wells, which this year are failing.

Lewin said Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo County will no longer water its lawns or wash fire engines.

“People are going to see our lawns dying and our engines dirty,” Lewin said.

While Cal Fire is beefing up its firefighting abilities, officials say residents need to do their part by getting a head start on weed abatement, which is expected to be heavily scrutinized in the county this year.

The county ordinance defines proper abatement as a 30-foot clearance around a home and a 70-foot radius of reduced vegetation to create a defensible space.

Cal Fire inspectors will be conducting compliance checks, while some cities are looking at reworking their local ordinances.

In the Five Cities area, for example, Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Mike Hubert said he will be taking an item before the Arroyo Grande City Council on Feb. 11 to create a more streamlined weed-abatement process that more closely matches the county’s program.

Currently, the Fire Authority — which handles fire and weed-abatement services for Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano — has to deal with two different city ordinances and the county’s ordinance when evaluating parcels in the three communities it serves.

“Typically, this time of year we would not be encouraging people to go out and clear their brush,” Lewin said. “But people need to be on it now — they can’t wait until the spring.”

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