In 2014 California experienced the worst wildfire season in recorded history. More than 631,434 acres burned in more than 5,620 wildfires across the state which forced the state to burn through its $209 million fire suppression budget by the beginning of September. The same budget Governor Jerry Brown had increased three months earlier through legislation.
Much like water to valley farmers, the fire season has a first hand affect on residents in the Mountain Area. Bass Lake and Oakhurst residents can personally attest to the heart aches caused by these devastating fires as the Courtney Fire or Junction Fire destroyed more than 30 homes last year leaving many homeless and without a change of clothes. Six months later many of those residents are still dealing with the devastation, trying to rebuild their homes, finding new places to live and dealing with the loss of family heirlooms and other irreplaceable items.
Those very same fires caused mass evacuations and saw the Oakhurst Community Center and Coarsegold Community Center filled wall to wall with potential fire victims temporarily displaced from their homes.
Yet, as bad as the 2014 season was the 2015 season is shaping up to be much worse. Several county officials are calling last year’s fires a wake up call for residents and emergency personnel. With California amidst its unprecedented fourth consecutive year of drought, the below average rainfall/snowpack once again has stacked the deck against Eastern Madera County.
Cal Fire preparation
Deputy Chief-Operations of Cal Fire for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Kevin Smith said last year was one of the worst fire seasons in Eastern Madera County he has seen in his 32 years working in the area.
“This side of the unit (Eastern Madera County) had six major fires and that’s more than we have had in any one single fire season,” Smith said. “Our fuels and our vegetation is drying up faster than it ever has and they are susceptible to fire more than they have been before.”
Being in the middle of what is considered the epicenter of drought and pest damaged trees, some experts in Eastern Madera County are predicting a 30-40% reduction in the number of healthy Ponderosa Pines throughout the Mountain Area. According to Cal Fire officials these bug infested and drought ridden trees provide the perfect fuel source during a fire creating a roman candle type fuel source that can explode sending debris and embers miles into the air.
“We always have our fair share of fires but with the drought and the dead and dying bug infested trees it has the potential to increase in the coming years,” said Nancy Koerperich, Cal Fire Unit Chief for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit.
Although nearly impossible to predict the severity of a fire season, between the drought, the Western Pine Beetle, and a limited budget Koerperich said they do expect a rough year for residents and fire fighters.
“We anticipate that this year’s fire season could be as difficult as last year. We don’t see a lot of relief for the 2015 fire season. Our folks worked really hard last year and we have geared them up to know they are going to be working that hard this year,” Koerperich said.
In preparation for the upcoming fire season Cal Fire and Madera County Fire stations all throughout Eastern Madera County have already begun their transition into fully staffed stations and plan to be fully staffed by mid-May. More than a month earlier than previous years.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief and PIO Chris Christopherson said in order to better prepare for the upcoming season units are transitioning staffing all across the state and in some cases the stations never closed due to the potential for fire.
“We are gearing up for staffing and our transitional staffing into fire season because this year was the first year in California history we had Cal Fire fire engines staffed year round (throughout California),” Christopherson said. “We reduced staffing in certain areas based on the weather, we moved engines in certain areas based on the weather or lack of weather, but they had engines maintained state wide for the first time in California history.”
According to Karen Guillemin-Kanawyer, Fire Prevention Specialist II for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit, more than 74 firefighters were brought on Monday throughout the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Mountain Area and will now attend a three week training to prepare to staff Cal Fire engines for transitional staffing levels. Eastern Madera County fire stations included in this report were Rancheria, Raymond, Coarsegold, Bass Lake and Ahwahnee.
The Madera-Mariposa-Merced Mountain Area Cal Fire stations will be at peak staffing by May 18 which includes 97 firefighters at 11 stations with 17 fire engines.
“Transitional staffing normally occurs around May 15 with peak staffing around June 15. Due to the continuing drought and fuel conditions the past few years the Governor has issued an executive order for additional winter and spring staffing,” Guillemin-Kanawyer said. “Already this year, firefighters have been called to more than 800 wildland fires, compared to under 500 in a normal year.”
Koerperich said preparation changes week-to-week based on weather but wants the general public to know that they are doing everything possible to improve upon this years preparation and said they are using last year as a guide as how to better utilize resources.
“We are looking for ways to do it (fight fires) more efficiently by sharing resources. We have an excellent pre-plan for evacuation and structure defense plans. We basically pre-plan all the mountains areas so it gives us an idea of where we can best place our resources,” Koerperich said.
As a way to do their part and better prepare their homes for unforeseen fires some individual communities throughout the Mountain Area are taking a proactive approach to the early fire season and have orchestrated neighborhood wide clean-ups to help those who are less capable clear the necessary dead brush and potential fire hazards.
Rick Lawin of Oakhurst, and a group of 55 homeowners and renters in the Timberview area, have organized a neighborhood council called the “Timberview Area Firewise Improvement Council” designated to helping their neighborhood with Firewise and Firesafe education and encouragement.
The Firewise certified organization started five years ago when a group of concerned citizens recognized the benefit of a proactive approach to fighting fires and that by incorporating into a Firewise certified neighborhood that they could qualify for specific grants to be used to bolster the fire prevention efforts of that specific neighborhood.
Lawin, president of the group, said the council was created out of necessity and a concern over fire preparedness.
“Our mission is to educate and encourage people to keep their homes clean and mitigate the fire hazards through education and encouragement,” Lawin said.
Their Firewise community is completely volunteer and over the past five years Lawin said he has seen an increase in participation and the results are obvious.
“You cannot completely eliminate the hazard of fire, however, you can reduce the risk of fire by being proactive in fire prevention. It may seem costly to be proactive, but in the long run, it is cheaper and safer than the reactive approach of filing a fire insurance claim or worse, being injured in a fire,” Lawin said. “You can’t eliminate all the hazards of a wild fire but you can mitigate some of the risks of encountering the fire by being proactive and prepared.”
Through the combined efforts of his community and with the certification as a Firewise community, Lawin said they were able to secure more than $10,000 in grant money to be used strictly for fire prevention improvements to his neighborhood.
“Being an incorporated Firewise community we were able to qualify for specific grants which helped us to provide the neighborhood with three storage tanks in case of an emergency,” Lawin said. “We try and provide a community service for the neighborhood so people can be a little more Firewise. We are trying to get a grassroots organization going that better assist the neighborhoods in becoming a little more Firewise and Firesafe.”
Improvements made by the Firerwise community over the past five years include the creation of an annual “chipping day” designated to help remove brush and fire hazards from each others property, the installation and development of three emergency 5,000 gallon water tanks with Cal Fire hook ups, and the creation of a emergency exit for the community that previously only had one way out of the neighborhood.
In addition to the community efforts some home owners in the Timberview Area have gone as far as to install new “anti-ember” vents designed to prevent embers from entering the attic and eaves.
“The fire fighters are super and they do a wonderful job. Our purpose its to make it to where make they don’t have to do all that. We want them to be safe and be part of our team,” Lawin said.
Lawin said he encourages other residents in the Mountain Area to come together and take the safety of their homes and communities into their own hands. As an ex-aviation safety officer and a professor of aviation safety management, Lawin recognizes the importance of being proactive about safety.
“In aviation safety we were always looking for ways to avoid problems. This way the consequences are less significant,” Lawin said. “We highly recommend neighborhoods work together to be Firesafe and Firewise. That’s our goal as a community and as a neighborhood....to protect the neighborhood and community and it takes the effort of all.”
Firewise Inc. is a non-profit organization and all funding for the Timberview Firewise community comes through individual donations.