Christopher Neely here, preparing for fire season and appreciating the gravity of the fact that I just said that in April, before a weekend with rain in the forecast.
Recent research suggests that California may not get a reprieve after 2020’s devastating wildfire season. Scientists at San Jose State University are saying that much of the fuel in some parts of the state has never been drier.
Fires are already starting. As of April 23, Cal Fire has already reported 19 wildfires throughout the state, five of which sparked in Santa Cruz County. By this time last year—California’s most destructive wildfire season on record—Cal Fire had reported just 10. The good news is that the vast majority of these fires are relatively small, ranging from 15 to 250 acres burned. However, the dry winter slowed recovery from 2020’s fires and the conditions heading into the late spring and early summer have fire officials concerned.
“The environment here is heavily stressed,” Matt Harris, chief of the volunteer-run Big Sur Fire tells me. Stressed to the point that he says any fire could easily become a campaign fire, which is to say one that takes a lot of help, time and resources to contain.
Many of the local experts I spoke with this week recalled a time when wildfire season wouldn’t come until June or July. City of Monterey Fire Chief Guadenz Panholzer says that nowadays, there’s no use in referring to it as a season. “In the fire service we still talk about a fire season but really we know fire season starts around Jan. 1 and ends sometime around Dec. 31,” Panholzer says.
Through my conversations for a story in this week’s print edition of the Weekly, I was surprised to find that any finger-pointing around this issue appears to be replaced by a sense of initiative from neighbors, fire chiefs and even politicians. A feeling not necessarily of frustration, but one of responsibility to meet the state’s reality.
Last year’s Carmel and River fires came too close to home for a pair of Carmel Valley neighborhoods. This year, through a considerable grassroots effort to reinforce their neighborhoods against wildfire threats, Rancho Tierra Grande and Robles del Rio are the first two neighborhoods in the county to get National Fire Protection Agency certifications as Firewise communities. Politically, State Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, is proposing California ditch the annual battles over fire funding and create five-year appropriation plans to better level expectations. And even in the midst of what looks to be a much earlier fire season, volunteer fire crews are already mobilizing.
There are limits to the impact of volunteers, however. Harris tells me last year’s unrelenting fire season, combined with the social and economic depression put on by the pandemic, exhausted his volunteer Big Sur Fire crew. He says a huge challenge was trying to maintain the team’s morale and he expects the same this year: “It’s going to go from 0 to 100 pretty quickly this year, and we’re going to have to try to keep the crews motivated for a long season.”