But fire officials also watch local conditions
Every year, local fire crews dispatch across the country to fight the fires that grab national headlines.
After several days of being staged in Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County due to high fire danger conditions, the Smith River Hotshots thought they were headed home to Gasquet.
“They’re en route to come back but I believe they'll be snatched up to go to the northern Rockies before they get back,” said Mike Frederick, Smith River Division Chief of Six Rivers National Forest, on Thursday.
It was less than 24 hours before the Smith River Hotshots were redirected to the 1,200-acre Dale fire east of Redding.
“That’s the life of those hotshots crews; very busy; away from home a lot,” said Robert Rivelle, Six Rivers forest prevention officer. “They’re an in-demand resource, not only locally but throughout the nation.”
Although the Smith River Hotshots are based in Del Norte County and conduct tasks locally like controlled burns, during fire season they follow the flames all over the West.
“I sign their pay sheets and we all work together, but during fire season they are a national resource,” Frederick said.
The 112 hotshot crews in the nation generally work on the hottest and most inaccessible portions of a wildfire. If wildland firefighting was likened to the military, hotshots would be like the Army Rangers, Frederick said. The Smith River hand crew (no fire engine) was certified as the first hotshot crew in Del Norte County in 2009.
The Smith River Division also lent its fire engine to the Six Rivers National Forest strike team, which is fighting the 10,133-acre Weber wildfire in the southwestern corner of Colorado near Mancos. The strike team has five fire engines from different districts of Six Rivers with five firefighters per engine.
A Redwood National and State Parks fire engine and crew was also deployed to the Weber fire in Colorado, and is now going to fight a wildfire in Wyoming.
The Six Rivers water tender from the Mad River district is fighting the 248,600-acre Ash Creek fire in southeastern Montana.
But even when local fire resources are dispersed to big fires, the Forest Service always tries to keep at least one engine available at each district office in case of a new fire. For instance, one of the Gasquet engines is with the strike team, but the other is staying home.
For Del Norte and the surrounding region, fire danger will peak around early-September, but throughout the hot, dry summer “we’re moving toward more fire danger every week,” Rivelle said.
The Forest Service is predicting that “super-fires” like the Waldo Canyon fire that claimed two lives and burned 350 homes near Colorado Springs, Colo., are almost inevitable for Northern California.
This year’s difficult fire conditions are from warmer temperatures and drier winters, according to Malcolm North, plant ecologist with the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the Forest Service.
“What we're seeing now is that snow reserves are less in the Sierras and runoff is happening earlier in the year,” he said.
There is a trend of longer fire seasons nowadays and the fires have been bigger.
The largest fire years since 1950 have all occurred since 2000, according to a recent Forest Service report on California wildfires. The annual average of acres burned since 2000 is twice the average for fires that happened from 1950 to 2000.
A light winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains this year is cause for alarm, meaning our local crews will stay busy.
“Fire is an inherent part of the system. You can never exclude it. You can suppress it and keep it from happening for a while, but eventually all of these systems will burn. Every homeowner and policymaker needs to know that,” North said.
Although there are no fire restrictions in Six Rivers right now and the fire danger is not as strong in Del Norte as it is further inland, fire safety is still very important as 10 to 15 percent of wildfires in Northern California are started by humans.
The Forest Service recommended a few things that people should remember during fire season:
• Get a free permit from the Forest Service for any and all campfires on national and state lands. Read the fire safety information on the permits.
• If you have a fire, carry a shovel and water. Don’t leave fires until they are cool to the touch.
• Create a 100-foot diameter area of defensible space around your home. Clearing an area of 30 feet immediately surrounding your home is critical. The remaining 70 feet should be a mosaic of plants spaced far enough apart that fire cannot jump from one plant to another.
• Remove all build–up of needles and leaves from your roof and gutters. Keep tree limbs trimmed at least 10 feet from any chimneys and remove dead limbs that hang over your home or garage.
• For debris burning, make sure you have a valid permit from Cal-Fire and burn on the designated days.
Joining your local fire safety council is another good way to be productive and help out even if you live on the coast, Rivelle said.
For more information on fire safety, visit firewise.org or fire.ca.gov.
For local fire conditions and restrictions, call the Gasquet Ranger District office at 707-457-3131.
Speaking of summer safety, Frederick would like to remind the public to practice water safety in the cold waters of the Smith River. Alcohol and rivers don’t mix.
“We end up dragging a body or three out of the Smith River every summer,” Frederick said.
McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.