Wildfire season begins: Crews brace for dry summer

Wildfire season begins: Crews brace for dry summer »Play Video
Photo courtesy of the Kern County Fire Department. (2010 file photo)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — It's been a dry winter for California, and temperatures will start to heat up soon. That has fire crews gearing up for what could be a tough summer. Kern County crews are keeping an eye on the weather, and checking the condition of grasses and other so-called "fire fuels."

Local crews also know this year's outlook partly depends on what we saw last summer.

"We did have devastating fires, but it was a little easier than we expected," Kern County Fire spokesman Corey Wilford told Eyewitness News. "This year you have those same fuels out there that didn't have a chance to burn last year. So you really have a high fuel loading this summer."

They're watching the conditions, but Wilford says only time will tell how things shape up this summer. "It depends on -- do we get the thunder storms that start the fires? Or the people out there and actually accidentally causing fires?" Wilford said.

The fire season's already heated up south of us. "Our firefighters have responded to an increased number of wildfires due to the very little rainfall we have received over the past few months," CALFIRE director Chief Ken Pimlott said in a statement.

That state fire agency says they've responded to more than 680 wildfires since the beginning of the year, they say that's 200 more than average for this time of year.

The lack of rain and snowpack are big concerns. CALFIRE spokesmen say the latest state water survey found snowpack only 52 percent of average statewide. And they said there were very low rainfall levels across the state from January to April. That will likely mean one of the driest years ever, they say.

Wilford said the Kern County Fire Department just got predictions that our area will see normal fire risk in April and May, with slightly higher levels in June and July.

And, as always, they'll carefully watch the moisture in the grasses and other brush. "They'll collect fuel samples, and then they'll come back, and through a process set aside, they'll actually determine the fuel content, or exact moisture content." Wilford explained. "They'll figure out how volatile it is, so what the probability of ignition would be for that fuel, based upon the weather at the time."

Monday, April 29 is the official start of the fire season. Wilford said after that date, they send out a bigger response to any fire. The idea is to hit the fire hard very quickly, and not give it a chance to get ahead of them.

State fire crews are gearing up, too. "Just last week we hired about 150 additional seasonal firefighters to augment our 4,700 permanent, because we are seeing an increase in fire danger and an increase in activity much earlier than normal," CALFIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

In Kern County, Wilford said the areas most at risk are the outlying and mountain communities. Because of the winter's low rain and snowfall, they know the brush and trees at the higher elevations are even more stressed.

"They're starting to dry out -- brown out -- a little bit, so we'll be seeing a little higher fire activity in the higher elevations," Wilford said. He reminds residents in outlying areas it's vital to have "defensible space," and this year's deadline is June 15.

People living in areas prone to wildfires need to prepare 100 feet of defensible space around their homes. CALFIRE says that includes removing all dead plants, grass and weeds from within 30 feet of a home. Trimming trees six feet from the ground. Removing leaves, pine needles and debris from roofs.

Their final advice is to have an evacuation plan, in case of a wildfire.