Facing a high chance of an intense fire season across the Western United States, firefighting agencies are preparing for the worst.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and regional firefighters practiced helicopter hoists on Friday. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Dozens of firefighters with Six Rivers National Forest, Cal Fire, and Redwood National and State Parks practiced dropping and hoisting from a helicopter at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds on Friday, and fire managers also held a stakeholders meeting to share information on what is expected this fire season.
Fire managers asked the public for input on what they value as the most important resources to be saved in the event of a fire.
“We want to hear what folks think about what some of our past practices have been and ask questions about how we intend to do business this summer,” said acting Six Rivers Forest Supervisor Mike Minton.
Using a hypothetical fire scenario in the High Divide area east of Smith River on Rowdy Creek Road, those in attendance identified what values would be at risk from this fire: residential structures on Low Divide Road, domestic water supplies for Smith River, fisheries habitat, power lines for the whole county, commercial timber resources, national forest botanical areas and others.
“You have to understand that different people have different values,” said Mike Frederick, Smith River Division Chief of Six Rivers National Forest.
Ideally, firefighters will execute a fire response that protects all of those values, but having some prioritization in mind before the fire season is important considering the need for quick decisions during a blaze.
Cal Fire and Forest Service officials said that northwest California has the benefit of a very healthy working relationship between state and federal firefighters whereas in many parts of the country, the state, feds and local agencies butt heads and end up fighting the same fire in different ways without cooperating together.
Hugh Scanlon, Cal Fire camp chief of Alder Camp, emphasized the importance of knowledge that locals can provide who know the landscape and how it burns.
“I always ask, ‘What burnt before and what did it look like when it was done burning?’” Scanlon said.
Judging from the weather outlook, there certainly is a high chance of fires on the horizon.
Jeff Tonkin, of the National Weather Service office in Eureka, detailed all of the reasons why northwest California, Del Norte included, is facing a high-risk fire season: virtually no snowpack; 25–50 percent of average precipitation; no late-spring showers to make fuels “green up” before summer; dryness of soil and duff; high chance of above-normal temperatures this summer due to El Niño.
“If fires get going we are going to be stretched for resources,” Tonkin said.
Tonkin said that in his 10-plus years of forecasting fire seasons, this is the first time that he has seen dry conditions in May in northwest California duff, which helps fires spread fast.
“That just enforces and supports where we are with the drought,” Tonkin said.
Firefighting agencies in California are pushing the “One Less Spark — ne Less Wildfire” campaign, which outlines responsible ways to go about using outdoor lawn equipment, having a campfire or completing other tasks without sparking a wildfire.
But even if folks are as responsible as possible in preventing wildfires, lightning strikes could create huge burns.
It’s hard to predict how much lightning might be expected and when and where, but even an average amount will spell trouble this year.
“Given the state of the drought and fuel conditions that we’re under, even if we get the normal amount of lightning strikes, we’re going to have problems — no doubt,” Tonkin said.
Heading into an El Niño winter, Tonkin said that there is a very good chance of an above average amount of lightning. El Niño often comes with early rain in the fall, which could bring an early close to the fire season, but Tonkin said that he wouldn’t count on that for northwest California.
Del Norters interested in getting involved with fire prevention can attend a meeting of the Del Norte Fire Safe Council at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Crescent City Cal Fire Station, 1025 U.S. Highway 101, Crescent City.