Lackluster rainfall and hotter-than-normal temperatures have prompted officials to station fire-fighting aircraft at the Nevada County Air Park at least a month earlier than in previous years.
“We usually don’t start the fire season this early,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Nobody recalls it starting this early,” she said. “Normally, we don’t have (the aircraft stationed) on until July, sometimes mid-June.”
While Nevada County’s total water year precipitation is just above 41 inches as of Friday, which is only about 5 inches below a 75-year average, more than half of that total is thanks to heavy December precipitation. Barely any moisture was added to this year’s total in April, according to the state Department of Water Resources’ measurements.
“It’s dry,” said Karl Swanberg, a forecaster for the National Weather Service. “Broadly speaking, looking at fuel moisture, we’re six weeks ahead of schedule.”
Scattered showers Monday brought little reprieve to the water woes, Tolmachoff said.
“Even though we got a little bit of rain, it was not enough to make a huge difference,” she said.
There are two air tankers and an air attack plane at the airport off Loma Rica Drive, just east of Grass Valley. The three aircraft arrived a week ago and await standby for deployment to regional fires, Tolmachoff said.
In addition to scores of small vegetation fires, Northern California firefighters have already battled sizable blazes in Butte and Ventura counties, which Tolmachoff said were partially squelched by showers earlier this week. However, with the National Weather Service predicting a weekend with temperatures above normal in the 80s, followed by a week of similar conditions, fire officials are looking at the summer expecting the worst.
“It’s going to be a rough summer this year,” Tolmachoff said.
Grass Valley and Nevada City have already banned residential controlled burns, according to the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District.
And while burning is still permitted in unincorporated county areas on designated burn days, there are restrictions with those, too.
Residents wanting to burn yard debris must get a permit, according to the air district. And fires can only consume yard waste with a width of no more than 4 feet, Tolmachoff said.
“Burn days could get shut off at any time,” Tolmachoff said.
The primary responsibility for a burn day decision resides with the California Air Resources Board and Cal Fire. The local air district has the final say on the burn day status, according to its website, but considers input from all relevant sources and agencies and will almost always defer to the agency that calls for a no-burn day.
The primary factors considered in a decision are fire danger, air quality and atmospheric dispersion characteristics.
Tolmachoff warned residents not wait to see smoke before they take action. She suggested residents clear their properties of fire hazards and create a 100-foot defensive space, while yard waste can still be safely burned.
“Do it now. Don’t wait because we are running out of time,” she said.
Cal Fire also urges residents to have evacuation protocols planned.
“People in the foothills, that’s your first step is to clean up your house and make sure things are ready in case something comes through your area,” Tolmachoff said.
That means having important documents in either fire-proof safes or in a place where they can be grabbed quickly along with evacuation materials, such as clothing, medications and important personal items.
Cal Fire also said to be prepared to learn of a fire while you are away from home. Coordinate with neighbors, Tolmachoff advises, to help if needed.
“Have a plan in case something happens because a lot of times, all you get is last-minute notice,” Tolmachoff said.
Cal Fire asks homeowners to only work with lawn mowers and weed trimmers before 10 a.m., Tolmachoff said, when it is less likely to start a fire.
“We are asking people to be very careful,” she said. “It is amazing how quickly a little fire can take off.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.