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Dryness test shows fire threat

Roman Gokhman

Nevada County is so dry fire officials can smell the potential for a blaze in the air.

Humidity, which normally dampens the dry vegetation every night, has not been as present this month.

“This morning, the fuels were where they normally are around noon,” said Steve Robinson, a fire captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Tuesday. “We are ahead of the trends.”

Based on the moisture level of local fire fuels – mainly manzanita – the county is as dry right now as it usually is in early September. Compared with 2003, the dryness level is now where it was in late September.

The dryness indication is based on twice monthly tests of manzanita branches from a San Juan Ridge field. The branches are weighed, dried and weighed again to determine how much moisture was in the plant, Robinson said.

This month, there have been about 40 fires in western Nevada County, according to CDF. That is about how many fires are reported at this point in July on average, but there is something different this year causing more concern on the part of fire officials.

“They are doing more – burning more, spreading more,” CDF dispatcher Chelsea Fox said. “Last year, (fire crews) would be able to get there and be able to handle it with just a few fire engines. This year we are having to continue all of the equipment (such as bulldozers, engines, water tenders and air tankers).”

County firefighters have also noticed the difference in dryness between this year and in the past.

“We are starting to see the fuels react like they do in late fire season – August and September,” Nevada County Consolidated Fire Chief Tim Fike said. In turn, the fire intensity is causing more spot fires, where dry leaves, pine cones or other objects catch fire and are blown away from the main blaze, starting another one, and making it more difficult for firefighters to do their jobs.

“Those spot fires then fuel the main fire and create a safety hazard,” Fike said.

In a small fire off Lime Kiln Road on July 12, a spot fire was started about one-half mile away from the main blaze, as an example.

Fike said there are several things residents cans do to lessen the potential for a major blaze near their homes. First, they should clear dry or dead vegetation from around the home to create a defensible space of 50 to 100 feet

People should also water plants more often, especially manzanita bushes.

“They become less susceptible to high-intensity fire,” Fike said. “Just a little bit of water in the plant helps.”

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