Fire season is here, county urges preparation

By Heather Bailey, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, June 14, 2021

walbridge fire aftermath

Forest in Sonoma County after the Walbridge Fire in August 2020. (Photo Katherine Minkiewicz)

At the June 9 briefing from the county on preparations for fire season, two things were made clear — fire season is here and everyone needs to be ready.

“We’re experiencing an exceptional drought, we’re at right about 39% of average rainfall, the curing of fuels is happening much faster than normal,” said CalFire Division Chief Ben Nicholls. “It affects the entire northern part of the state, and the Sierra snowpack has essentially completely melted, which means more frequent large fires there, which will draw down resources across the state.

Nicholls said that predictive services for the northern region are predicting light to moderate offshore wind events, which aid in the ignition of fires.

“We have seen fires in the county in the last several weeks that had wind on them, but not offshore wind, but because of conditions we’re still having spotting and ember cast issues. We’ve had discussions with chiefs and other agencies about reaching out to (to county emergency services) earlier in the game to get evacuation warnings out earlier,” he concluded, adding that he means warnings so people are ready to evacuate, not necessarily mandatory evacuations.

All of this means that fire season will be earlier, Nicholls said, with current data showing that current conditions are more on par with where we are in mid-August, and that the “active peak” of fire season is likely to be four to six weeks earlier than normal.

The only piece of good news he shared was that the low rainfall the last two years has significantly inhibited grass growth, especially in the burn scars of previous fires. While drought conditions increase flammability, they’ve also decreased spread. “We’re 50 fires above where we’d normally be this time of year, but we’re 1,000 acres under where we were this time last year.”

Misti Wood, a community liaison with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Wood, and county communications manager Paul Gullixson both shared the importance of keeping tuned to social media as one of the avenues of information distribution during a crisis, including the county’s Facebook page and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page. Wood also emphasized the new emergency tag program and the to know your newly minted evacuation zone to make sure.

“Know your zone, get your tag and follow the sheriff’s department on Facebook,” Wood said.

Questions for the panel participants covered a wide range of topics, though mostly focused on vegetation management. It was reiterated that all vegetation management (mowing, trimming etc.) should take place before 10 a.m. and while being mindful of the conditions. For people who may lack the ability to fireproof their homes, due to illness or infirmity, Cyndi Foreman, fire marshal for the Sonoma County Fire District, said the fire district website has multiple companies who are available to assist homeowners. She also reminded people that while they can educate people, it isn’t technically illegal for people to mow outside of those parameters.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, shared the website matchgraze.com, which will match up property owners in need to safe vegetation removals with farmers and individuals who will bring grazing animals (sheep, goats, cattle) to properties to do just that.

Foreman also shared, based on a reader comment, that piles of cut grass and weeds under four inches are still deemed to be in compliance, though if they are taller than that, they would not be. Nicholls answered a reader question about prescribed burn, stating they weren’t done for the season yet, and also assured that even with the recent retirement of the supertanker firefighting aircraft, “day to day we are aircraft rich,” detailing both the local resources available in county and also what was available within easy flight reach, including CalFire’s new Sikorsky S70i Firehawk helicopters.

One topic asked about, but not fully resolved, was the issue of contact for residents who may not have cell or internet services, or for those who live in rural areas with spotty service. Chris Godley, director of the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management, stated that the county had been working with state legislators to change rules for providers to help require service. And he suggested the use of NOAA radios for those residents who live in areas with spotty services. And specifically, the county will be adding “repeaters” to boost the signal for NOAA radios throughout the west county.

However, the specific question about improvements for carriers Verizon and Comcast, who’ve notoriously lost service stranding customers in past fires, wasn’t specifically answered.

“Ninety-nine percent of fires are started by human-caused reasons, and if it’s predictable, it’s preventable. Things like equipment used in wildland areas, illegal campfires … we ask everyone to exercise extreme caution during this period of exceptional drought.”

All of the county’s resources can be found at https://socoemergency.org

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org