Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An extra dry summer fosters extra bad fires

View from our orchard as a fire rages 5 miles north of our property
Here in mid-summer the dire warnings of severe fires have come to pass. After four years of drought, vegetation is extremely dry and more flammable than ever. So it has been no surprise that in the past few weeks we have had a couple of major blazes nearby. First, a fire in nearby Mix Canyon caused evacuations there and burned considerable acreage before being stopped. Then eight days ago a major wind-driven fire erupted near Lake Berryessa, burning 6,500 acres in three days as it raced through remote canyons. Just when it seemed to be well under control, a wind shift ignited still-smoldering trees and sent the fire jumping containment lines to scorch another 1000 acres.

Our property was never in danger since we expect fires and prepare accordingly, keeping our ground closely mowed and clear of debris, trimming trees up away from the ground, and mowing wide barriers on adjacent properties if the owners don't. And we make sure to keep large hoses and full-flow valves in key spots around our property and buildings.

The first evening of the fire I took the time lapse video below from our porch. This really shows a fire with a life of its own.

Amazingly no homes were destroyed in these local fires, only a couple of outbuildings. This is a true testament to the expertise and hard work of firefighters. But though homes escaped it is always painful to see the damage to native vegetation. Huge areas of oak and pine woodlands have been incinerated, and as we've seen in past years, Manzanita and other low growing brush tends to then take over, leaving the hills even more prone to future fires.

A canyon near the start of the "Wragg fire" is left completely barren 
Scorched trees - some will survive, many will not
It has been fascinating to watch the firefighting and learn how their technology has advanced over the years. In these rugged and inaccessible areas, air drops of fire retardant and water are the most powerful tool. This has long been the case but the technology seems to have become more refined.

My fireman neighbor described watching the air drops from a ridge top while listening to the fire fighters' radio channel. A small spotter plane flew along the advancing fire line, in radio communication with the bomber pilots and dropping white powder markers to indicate where the retardant drop should start and end, and recommending the rate of drop and warning of air turbulence and other dangers. Meanwhile the bombers would circle the area getting in position for the drop. When all was ready the spotter pilot would radio, "OK follow me" and lead the bomber along the drop path.

An air tanker drops retardant along a fire line

I watched several drops and was amazed at the accuracy and the skill with which pilots flew heavily loaded large planes very low to the fire, seemingly barely clearing ridge tops at times. We saw a "VLAT" (very large air tanker, a converted DC10 jetliner) used for many drops. It was startling to see a big jet flying so close to the ground.

Equally impressive was how the pilots were able to fly in such close quarters with so many other planes and multiple helicopters, all the while flying in very smokey skies.

A helicopter dips water from lake Berryessa to drop on a hot spot
And not to give all the credit to the air drops, the hard working and dedicated ground crews are equally impressive. Bushwacking up steep hills in 100 degree+ heat wearing protective gear and carrying heavy equipment, often through heavy brush, these "boots on the ground" do incredibly hard work. They labor to hand-cut breaks to contain fires and to save structures.  

So what are the lessons here? First, fires are a fact of life in California's dry areas, so we should expect them. Second, we are lucky to have such skilled and dedicated firefighters. But here's the thing I just don't get: Why do so many rural property owners fail to take basic steps to protect their properties from fire? 

This house is practically asking to burn up in a grass fire, an all too common sight
Why leave thick bushes, low hanging trees and tall dry grass around buildings? Sure firefighters are tasked with stopping fires, but why make their job tougher rather than easier? Why expose them to more personal danger than they are already in? Why not secure one's own property so when the inevitable fire approaches, the firefighters can put more manpower into stopping it from growing and threatening others' property? When seconds count, firefighters are minutes away, so why not give yourself every advantage? I just don't get it. End of rant, thanks for reading.