“Don’t be afraid; be prepared”: Officials weigh in on 2020 fire season (PHOTO GALLERY) | TheUnion.com
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“Don’t be afraid; be prepared”: Officials weigh in on 2020 fire season (PHOTO GALLERY)

Every Monday, Cal Fire Public Information Officer Mary Eldridge gets a stat sheet showing how many fires her department has engaged compared to the same time last year.

By this time last year, Cal Fire had responded to 1,735 fires for a total of 17,373 acres burned.

“This year we already have almost 3,000 fires for 19,551 acres,” Eldridge said. “We are seeing the potential for one of those record-breaking fire years.”

“The good news in that is that we are keeping them small,” she said. “If we didn’t jump on them quickly, they would expand.”

Cal Fire’s goal is to keep each incident at fewer than 10 acres, and though firefighters have been doing the job at meeting that goal, Eldridge said careless people have not been making it an easy one to accomplish.

“It really comes down to one less spark means one less wildfire,” Eldridge said.

“I just had a prevention officer come in and say that there were a string of vegetation fires along Loma Rica (Road),” she said, before suggesting a deflated tire and/or dragging chain as the potential cause.

While flashy fuels are less prevalent than in previous years due to lower rainfall amounts, Eldridge said she wants to remind the public that there is still plenty of dry fuel out there to cause dangerous wildfire conditions.

“The problem is that people forget too soon that we had a drought that lasted for five years. Those trees are still out there, it’s not like we’ve raked the forest,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge added that recent incidents such as the Wildwood Fire, which burned earlier this week near Lake Wildwood, are a good opportunity for people to check their “go bags” of essential belongings if an evacuation becomes necessary.

“It’s too late for defensible space, now is the time to be prepared to leave,” Eldridge said. “Don’t be afraid, be prepared.”

Fourth of July Safety

In Grass Valley and Nevada City, Fire Chief Mark Buttron is hoping for a slower fire season, but is preparing for the opposite, including being ready for any fire work on the Fourth.

“We’ve increased our staffing for Fourth of July weekend, beyond that there’s not a whole lot of changes to years past,” Buttron said. “This year, with the opportunity for a professional fireworks show within the city limits, we will have multiple resources assigned to the event.”

“Fire protection for the event will be phenomenal,” Buttron said.

Folks from downtown Grass Valley to the Glenbrook Basin should be able to see the display from their homes or nearby clearings, as the fireworks are to be launched near the Dorsey interchange starting around 9 p.m. Saturday.

Other than the public display, fireworks of any type are illegal in Nevada County and those caught lighting fireworks are subject to a citation and seizure of illegal property by a fire law enforcement task force.

“Traditionally we try to educate,” Buttron said. “But it depends on the situation. Last year was fairly quiet in terms of fireworks use in the county. It’s set in that fireworks are illegal.”

Tahoe National Forest

Current projections for the Tahoe National Forest are for warmer temperatures and drier than average conditions due to a lower than normal 2019-20 snowpack.

“I think typical of a year where we have a little less precipitation, we are preparing for a busy fire season,” said Public Affairs Officer Joe Flannery. “Given the past five fire seasons in California, we should be ready for anything this year.”

Flannery said forest service firefighters will be managing all fires this year using suppression tactics as in previous years, but alluded to a future change in approach that will give firefighters another tool for forest fire management.

“Generally any human caused or lightning caused fire, we are required to suppress that fire even if there is a beneficial use,” Flannery said. “This summer we will be aggressively fighting fires, but in the future we will be changing that plan.”

According to Flannery, only if certain conditions exist, the change would allow firefighters to manage fire caused by lightning strikes much in the same manner as they would a prescribed burn, giving firefighters the opportunity to reduce fire fuels for the long term.

“In the near future we could have a second option,” Flannery said, “To utilize the benefits of natural fires.”

Public Safety Power Shutoffs

As a result of the deadly and destructive 2018 wildfire season, PG&E enacted massive preemptive power shutdowns between the beginning of October and November 1, 2019.

The shutdowns crippled business in many Northern California counties, including Nevada County. This year the utility company will be enacting changes to its Public Safety Power Shutoff program designed to make things easier on their customers.

“PSPS will be smaller in size, shorter in length, and smarter for customers,” PG&E spookesperson Brandi Merlo said. “This year we will be providing better information for before, during, and after the PSPS events.”

PG&E also plans on providing more assistance and outreach to help customers, she said.

Other changes are geared to improve weather monitoring technology, to better prepare for a possible PSPS, and improve customer alerts with earlier restoration timing. Upgrading community resource centers, also is on the to-do list, so customers without power can have places to charge electric devices and meet other basic needs.

PG&E is also working to establish a new collaborative approach with cities counties, tribes and critical service providers. The company is bolstering its website capacity, expanding language communications and partnering with the California Foundation for Independent Living centers, and other community based organizations to provide resources for customers with medical needs, she said.

“We have a goal to reduce the number of customers affected by potential PSPS events, by one-third compared to similar events last year,” Merlo said. “To meet that goal we are installing 600 sectionalizing devices that are capable of redirecting power and limiting size of outages, so that fewer communities are without power.

“We are looking at opportunities to install microgrids to keep key locations on for communities. We are targeting undergrounding as part of our system hardening.”

PG&E also hopes to cut its power restoration time in half compared to 2019.

“We’re wanting to restore power within 12 daylight hours after servere weather has passed. That specifically encompasses nearly doubling our exclusive use helicopter fleet,” Merlo said “We’re investing in more reliable and innovative equipment so our field teams can inspect, repair and restore power quickly.

“And we will also be utilizing mutual assistance from other utility companies to support inspections when needed.”

To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez email efunez@theunion.com, or call 530-477-4230.


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