Kasey Allen
Special to The Union

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October 15, 2009
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Living with fire


As California's 2009 fire season comes to a rainy end, it may seem as if Nevada County is off the hook.

A relatively low number of acres burned in the county this year - around 1,000 acres compared to 3,596 in 2008.

The quiet season extended beyond the county's borders. In the Tahoe National Forest, 46 acres burned, compared to a 23,497 acres the year before. Calfire, the firefighting and forestry department that serves the entire state, reported one-sixth the number of acres burned this year compared to last, and one-third the number of acres burned in comparison to the average over the last five years.

Why such modest numbers?

According to Tahoe National Forest spokeswoman Ann Westling, the answer is both simple and unnerving - luck.

In a year of record dryness, however, these figures stand in stark contrast to other California counties this year. In August, the Yuba Fire blazed across the Yuba River near Dobbins, scorching more than 3,800 acres and destroying two homes.

The Yuba Fire cost more than $12 million to fight.

Days later, the 49 Fire ripped through north Auburn, reminding residents that urban areas are not immune to wildfires. The quick blaze burned about 350 acres, destroying 63 homes and three commercial structures, and garnering a state of emergency in Placer County from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Fighting the 49 Fire cost $1 million.

In Los Angeles County, the Station Fire captured national attention, burning more than 160,000 acres and taking the lives of two firefighters. Dubbed a "megafire," it was one of the largest in the county's history. With the fire still 98 percent contained, the cost to fight it so far is $95.2 million.

Such destruction - even in a year of calm for Nevada County - serves as a reminder that luck alone is not enough. Foothill communities face extreme fire hazards, and a quiet year does nothing to change that.

The continuous occurrence of fire is a historic fact, demonstrated by years of records kept by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

Records reaching to 1878 depict an area that has repeatedly been visited by destructive blazes. The earliest in western Nevada County was in 1909. The four largest fires together burned nearly 58,000 acres before they were quelled.

This risk continues, and may grow in years to come.

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw a comparatively lower risk of fire, as many of the trees in our region were harvested for use in the gold mines and related industries. Much of the remaining vegetation was stripped, making it more difficult for fires to begin and spread, Fire Chief Jeanne Pincha-Tulley of the Tahoe National Forest said.

Today, much of this growth has returned, creating more fuel to burn. Compounding this are continuing drought conditions, lingering in this area since 1986, Pincha-Tulley said. Such a long-term dry period, the last of which lasted from 1894 to 1935, carries a host of increased fire risks.

Over the years, officials and residents have responded to this elevated risk.

As the map indicates, the areas of greatest population, namely the Highway 49 corridor and its communities of Nevada City, Grass Valley, Alta Sierra and Lake of the Pines, has remained relatively fire free during this 100-year period.

Tim Fike, fire chief of Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, attributed much of this to staffed fire stations and a local air attack base.

"In the last 15 years, we've beefed up our staffing, and there is a really short response time," Fike said, "When you get out to smaller roads, it takes longer to respond."

Like Westling, however, Fike did acknowledge a certain element of luck in the equation.

Pincha-Tulley agreed, commending the extra engines, helicopters and hot-shot crews that are available for fire suppression. Equally important, according to Pincha-Tulley, is the increased coordination and sharing of resources between agencies. "Different agencies are talking all the time now," she says.

For these agencies, preventing fires is not a seasonal task, but a full-time mission. As the fire season winds down and threats seem to diminish, residents must remember that they, too, play a role, a role that will become all the more important if in the next year, or the one after, or after that, Nevada County's luck turns.

Efforts in the county have spread the message about defensible space in recent years, but more can be done.

"Many landowners have defensible space, but they should also look at hazardous fuels inbetween the defensible spaces," said Executive Director Joanne Drummond of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. "A lot of 10- to 20-acre parcels contain a lot of hazardous fuels."

A common trait of fires occurring in the region are "long, stretched-out footprints, showing they're mostly wind-driven events," Fike said.

These wind-driven fires feed on dense growth, much of which can be eliminated through proper - and extensive - clearing.

In addition to increasing defensible space on private land, more can be done at the public-private interface.

Fire officials encourage landowners to share their concerns.

"Landowners often see identifiable fire hazards adjacent to their land, but they feel there is nothing they can do about it," Pincha-Tulley said.

"But there is something we can do about it together. We encourage them to come into our local office, and we'll work with them to help them achieve the defensible space they need."

As this fire season fades away, a new season for western Nevada County emerges: Fire prevention and preparation. With the first rains already in the books, the time is right for thinning brush and making plans for when - not whether - the next fire comes.

Kasey Allen lives in Nevada County.


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The Union Updated Oct 17, 2009 02:01PM Published Oct 15, 2009 04:52PM Copyright 2009 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.