Salute to firefighters, weather, luck

By Union Democrat staff November 23, 2010 04:29 pm
    With a key assist from cooler and wetter than average late spring and summer weather, Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents and firefighters did a good job keeping losses to a minimum during the 2010 fire season. 
    Now the challenge, through preparation and vigilance, is to keep the numbers low in the years to come.
    Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Ranger Unit reported that only 582 acres burned during the 2010 fire season, which stretched from late May until Nov. 1.
        The 2009 ranger unit total, 1,644 acres, was also low, and the average over the past five years has been a modest 2,267. In the 1990s and early in the 2000s, single catastrophic fires in this area would often burn many times that amount.
    Statewide, 2010 totals are likewise low: As of Nov. 13, only 28,563 acres had burned on Cal Fire-covered territory throughout California. Although parts of Southern California remain dry and the total could increase, the to-date count would be the second lowest annual total since the state began keeping records in 1933. (The very lowest was 23,154 acres, in 1991).
    In contrast, the statewide average for the past five years has been a much higher 241,672 acres and the top single-year total, in 1936, was a staggering 756,700 acres.
    Weather was credited with keeping this year’s damage low, as late spring rains and moderate summer temperates kept what fires did start from spreading fast.
    Statewide, 4,778 fires have been reported so far this year. The Tuolumne-Calaveras total was 193, lower than last year’s 229 and way below 328, the average annual number of fires reported over the past five years. And the count is unlikely to increase much during the remainder of 2010.
    A few weeks ago, a spark from a lawn mower could start a fire here in the foothills.
   Today, you’d need napalm to start a blaze, and even then it wouldn’t spread far.
    The danger of wildfires sweeping through communities or across large stretches of grass and timber, at least until next year, is over.
    To what do we owe this good fortune?
    Although weather and fuels are key factors in how fast a fire spreads, we humans are almost always the cause of wildfires.
    Yes, lightning started a series of fires that burned more than 1,000 acres in Yosemite National Park this summer. But escaped debris burns, cigarette butts, unattended campfires, sparks from machinery and other mistakes of recklessness or carelessness cause far more fires.
    That fewer fires started in 2010, however, may mean we are all being a bit more careful.
    And that less acreage burned, although spread is largely weather driven, is also testimony to our own efforts.  
    Law requires owners to clear brush and dead timber 100 feet back from their homes. It’s a requirement that — given California’s increasing volatile fire climate, the buildup of a flammable understory beneath our forests and, of course, the insistence of insurance companies — may be finding more and more compliance.
    Finally, despite budgets and staff cuts, our firefighters are doing an exemplary job. Divide the acreage burned in our ranger unit by the fires reported, and the result is a paltry average of 2.5 acres per fire. That means Cal Fire, Forest Service, district and city crews stopped a lot of fires long before they became unmanageable.
    We can all breathe a sigh of relief after the mercifully uneventful 2010 fire season. But it’s no time for complacency.
    The new normal is not 500 acres burned per year, and preventing fire is an all-year job.
    So check your property. With fire now danger low, it might be time to get out the chain saw and begin creating your defensible space for 2011.