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Lack of rain raises Placer County wildland fire concerns

Newcastle fire Thursday afternoon a reminder that fire season on its way
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Timing is everything.

And for a rural neighborhood along Highway 193 in Newcastle, a fire sparked Thursday by a power line brushing tree branches overhead was early enough in the spring to prevent potential catastrophe this time.

As a group of neighbors watched from the other side of the Lincoln-to-Newcastle highway, a two-man crew from the Newcastle Fire Protection District was able to quickly put out the smoldering fire in brush on the ground.  The burn footprint was contained to no more than a few feet in circumference at a time of year when leaves are still green and brush still relatively moist.

Cal Fire is already warning that a lack of rainfall has translated into an early increase in fire activity. Since the start of the year, the state fire agency has responded to more than 680 wildfires, which is more than 200 over the average for this time of year.

Grayson Elliott, a resident of one of the Highway 193 homes near the fire, said he turned in Thursday’s fire alarm to 9-1-1 operators after hearing a crash and seeing branches on fire.

“I wasn’t too worried because there is still a lot of green vegetation,” Elliott said. “It’s not as bad as it is in the summer.”

Elliott said that the property he’s on has about 5 acres of brambles and his plans this summer are to work to clear out much of the overgrowth. He added that he appreciated the quick response from firefighters.

“I want to give these guys some water bottles or bake them some cookies,” Elliott said.

Ian Gow, Placer Hills Fire Protection District chief, said Thursday that he and other fire officials in the county are concerned.

“The state looks at various weather and fuel models and it’s clear that this year, similar to last year, the fuels are going to be very dry and the weather is going to be hot and dry,” Gow said. “We’re anticipating an early fire season similar to last year.”

Placer County fire chiefs have just gone to summer staffing patterns, which means that for any wildland fire, the jurisdiction it’s in will get extra engines coming to help, Gow said.

A month ago, the Department of Water Resources conducted this year’s next-to-last snow survey and the low measurement levels are part of the reason Cal Fire is expressing concern. The survey found that snowpack is 52 percent of average statewide.

A statement from Cal Fire said this year is likely to go down as one of the driest on record,  based on low rainfall levels across the state from January to April.

Already, Cal Fire has dealt in recent months with a 296-acre fire in Lake County, a 406-acre blaze in Inyo County and a Riverside County fire that spread to 311 acres.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said the department increased staffing and moved airtankers to their bases in Southern California last week. At the same time, Cal Fire is in the process of training seasonal firefighters and monitoring weather conditions closely to determine staffing levels, he said.

“While we are busy transitioning into fire season, this is the time we want residents to begin preparing their homes for fire season by creating 100 feet of defensible space,” Pimlott said.

The city of Auburn is about to start a new round of clearing on the rim of the American River canyon to reduce the fire hazard. Auburn Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi agreed that homeowners provide an extra level of protection by providing defensible space on their property. That means cutting down weeds and eliminating brush now so it doesn’t build up during fire season, he said.

Whether it’s a dry winter - or a rainy one that gives forest fuels a chance to grow more than usual - D’Ambrogi said the wildland does dry out eventually.

“Either way, it’s not a good situation,” D’Ambrogi said. “Add strong wind patterns and it spells disaster."