California’s countryside green is fading fast to gold.
And then, as the summer heat arrives, whatever moisture remains in wild vegetation past May will be gone. Brown is the hue that will rule.
Nothing new about that. But this year is different. The combined effects of a third year of drought, a late round of precipitation that spurred a late March vegetation growth, along with years of questionable forest fire suppression has set the stage for what experts fear could be the worst wildfire season in modern California history. Get ready to color the Golden State black.
The coastal region from San Diego north to beyond San Francisco Bay have a wild fire potential considered way above normal. That’s bad news for the residents on wind-swept hills around Los Angeles where the infamous Santa Ana winds can blow fast furious, and dry. Also on the extreme fire danger list is the entire Central Valley as well as much of the Sierra foothills.
We like to think disastrous wildfires are limited to the hills around the Los Angeles Basin, the Oakland Hills, and the Sierra. But the Northern San Joaquin Valley is vulnerable as well. Five years ago a fast moving brush fire along the shoulder of Interstate 5 destroyed 28 homes in the City of Stockton.
Fuel for such fires – wild grass and brush – was relatively low especially after going 50 consecutive days this winter with no rain when such vegetation grows. But rain in late March and earlier this month allowed Mother Nature to play catch up.
Then there is the issue of water. The fact we have significantly less of it in reservoirs is not a good thing.
Some 44,000 residents in Tuolumne County were projected to run out of water by July after a combination of the drought and water needed to suppress the massive Big Rim Fire rapidly depleted carryover in the 6,400-acre-foot Lyons Reservoir. Without an emergency humanitarian sale of 2,400 acre feet of water to the Tuolumne Utilities District by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District in February, that July projection of the reservoir running dry would have come to pass.
The 250,000-acre inferno dubbed the Big Rim Fire last year in and around Yosemite National Park apparently wasn’t an aberration. It ranked among the top five fires in modern California history. Federal agencies that combat wildfires say the typical fire today burns nearly five times the area that fires did in 1970.
The U.S Forest Service notes that just one year – in 1969 – between 1960 and 1970 did more than 5 million acres burn in wildfires. Since 2003 more than five million acres have burned in 8 out of 10 years.
Experts blame part of it on fire suppression that has allowed fuel in the form of brush to accumulate. Before man came along to start managing forests and wild lands through fire suppression, nature let fires burn for weeks if not months to rid forests and such of buildup of brush and grasses that are the primary fuel of fires.
But the real problem is people. Besides those who are careless with camp fires and controlled burns such as being stupid enough to start them in high winds as well as tossed cigarettes and deliberate acts, irresponsible homeowners in many rural settings are to blame.
They refuse to clear dry brush and remove wild grass near their homes. Many will even build homes next to stands of scrub oaks and under larger oak trees. The Granite Bay region in the rolling terrain east of Roseville by Folsom Lake has some of the highest density in California for such homes. The problem are oak trees – especially scrub oak – goes up faster than kindling.
And with more homes, firefighting resources are diverted to try and protect them instead of trying to knock down the wildfire itself. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the size of wildfires have increased 500 percent during the past 40 years.
As the Stockton fire five years ago demonstrates vegetation conditions and winds exist right here in the Central Valley for a fire disaster.
That’s why clearing debris and knocking down weeds 6 inches or more in height even in the middle of town is the best thing you can do to make sure that your home is part of a burning inferno on the 6 o’clock news.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.