Union Democrat staff

Although the state has not yet declared the 2009 fire season over, last week's storm dealt it a crippling blow. And Monday's rainfall could deliver the coup de grace.

Debris burning, banned since May, is now allowed by permit. A half-dozen Cal Fire stations in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have been cut from two engine crews to one and, except for a lone helicopter, the Columbia Air Attack Base has been decommissioned for the season.

On the Stanislaus National Forest, campfire restrictions have been lifted and end-of-season layoffs are pending. And Yosemite National Park's fire season ended Friday.

We can all breathe a little easier: The days when a golfer can start a three-acre grass fire with a pitching wedge (it actually happened at Mountain Springs last month) are, mercifully, over.

But here's the big news from the now waning fire season: The Big One never hit. Losses were moderate, as they have been for much of the 2000s.

On state and private lands under Cal Fire jurisdiction, only 1,936 acres have burned so far this year. On the Stanislaus National Forest, largely due to June's Knight Fire, 6,147 acres have been blackened. The only other major blaze in the region was Yosemite National Park's Big Meadow Fire, an escaped controlled burn that ripped through 7,425 acres near Foresta in late August and early September.

No doubt these fires were scary, but they were efficiently contained and never became monster blazes like Southern California's 160,000-acre Station Fire.

Huge fires blazed here with bewildering regularity in the 1990s - A-Rock (25,000 acres, 1990), Old Gulch (17,000, 1992), Moccasin (8,000, 1992), Ackerson (60,000, 1996), Rogge (23,000, 1996) and more. Their likes have been largely absent through most of the past decade.

Cal Fire average fire loss for the past 10 years has been about 4,700 acres. The Stanislaus Forest average over the same period has been 4,200.

So are we just lucky? Or more careful? Or better at putting out fires?

All of the above, it turns out.

"People seem to be getting the message," said Rommie Jones, a fire prevention officer with Cal Fire.

The proof: Far fewer fires are caused by lawn mowers and other machinery, illegal debris burning is unfailingly reported by neighbors or passers-by and more homeowners are adhering to defensible-space rules and clearing within 100 feet of their homes.

Also, firesafe councils in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are raising awareness of the annual dangers and, with grant-funded clearing projects, eliminating hazards. The Forest Service also has an effective prescribed burn program it initiates in the off-season.

Cal Fire Batallion Chief Barry Rudolph adds that four-member engine crews (beefed up from the previous three by the state last year) have made a major difference in the agency's ability to put out fires before they can spread.

"We try to knock down 95 percent of the fires we respond to before they reach 10 acres and we're more successful at that," he said. "It's the 5 percent that go beyond 10 acres that cause the problems."

The new S2-T tankers, capable of dropping more retardant faster, also aid in snuffing fires early.

None of which mean that those of us living in what firefighters call the wildland-urban interface can relax.

First off, the fire season isn't over yet. The right combination of temperature (the mercury topped 80 in Sonora Sunday) and wind can set a debris burn ripping into the brush and onto a neighbor's property.

"A moment of inattention can make the difference," said Jones, urging burner to constantly attend their fires with a hose and shovel.

Also, as danger abates with fall rains, it is the best time for homeowners to begin clearing and creating that crucial defensible space for the 2010 fire season.

Because, although luck has certainly played a role, the low burn and loss totals in recent years are not accidental. We all can make a difference.