Fire threat now at critical level |

Fire threat now at critical level

Conditions for wildfires in Nevada County already are at dangerous levels, officials said Monday, and they are braced for a nasty fire season.

In a session to look ahead at the 2004 fire season, hosted by the Tahoe National Forest, local, state and national experts said the moisture in dead, forest-floor brush and timber is already dropped past the critical level and is even less wet than kiln-dried lumber. Highly flammable manzanita is expected to hit the critical low moisture level in mid-July.

“We’re in new territory,” said Tony Clarabut, chief of the Nevada-Yuba-Placer counties unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. “We don’t usually see moisture levels dropping so far, so fast.”

Officials said residents need to keep their land clear of dead brush and realize that emergency fire response is slower in rural areas than in the city.

Representatives from the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, county sheriff’s office, the Grass Valley Fire Department, and the county Office of Emergency Services all said they were ready for a bad fire season and evacuations.

Evacuation routes would be decided by the location of a fire and its behavior, the experts said. Local radio stations would be relied upon to get such a message out, along with and Web sites, officials said.

“We want every road to be an evacuation road in Nevada County,” Clarabut said. “We have to make spontaneous decisions about evacuation.”

Those decisions are easier to make these days because all fire emergency personnel are linked by radio, a luxury not in place during the 49er Fire of 1988 that blackened 33,000 acres from North San Juan to Beale Air Force Base and burned 165 homes.

Undersheriff John Trauner said he doubted anyone would be arrested if they refused to evacuate their land while a fire raged nearby. But children and elderly people would be evacuated from a home deemed to be in danger of burning, Trauner said.

Most forest fuels are at an Aug. 1 dry level already, Clarabut said, and the normally dangerous dry conditions of August and September will be in effect by July 1 this year.

Jeanne Pincha-Tulley of the Tahoe National Forest said scientists think “we are 12 years into a 50-year drought,” causing more dryness than normal above 2,500 feet in Nevada County. The west side of the Sierra is eight to nine weeks ahead of its normal drying period, she said – seven weeks on the east slope.

“We’re starting to see trees die from a combination of drought and bark beetles,” Pincha-Tulley said. “About the only month of the year we don’t have fires is February.”

To make matters worse, “it appears to be another bad lightning season,” said Chief Tim Fike of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District. “We had 40 percent (fire) starts last week” from lightning strikes during a rainy period, one of which quickly spread to 15 acres.

“My guess is we’ll have a significant fire,” Clarabut said. “At least one.”

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