07.13.2017  
 

No Drought? No Wildfire Relief

Cal Fire calls number of fire incidents 'staggering'

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
wine vineyard cal fire wildfire alamo
 
More than 2,100 fire personnel from across California have been dispatched to fight the Alamo Fire burning near the Santa Maria Valley. Photo: Thanh Nguyen/Garden Grove Fire

Sacramento, Calif.—Rather than protecting California from wildfires, the wet winter seems to have exacerbated perennial summer peril. The rapid growth of weeds and grasses that quickly browned in the summer heat already has spurred more than double the burned acreage as the same time last year, according to the state fire department, Cal Fire, which coordinates with local and federal agencies to combat wildfires.

Heather Williams, Cal Fire spokesperson, yesterday reported that as of the agency’s latest official tally July 9, more than 68,000 acres were consumed throughout the state this year in about 630 more individual fires than in the same January-July period of 2016. Cal Fire strives to limit any wildfire to 10 acres or fewer, and these aren’t included in the report. Last week alone, 488 new fires were reported, and nearly 40 quickly surpassed 10 acres. The numbers are “staggering,” Williams noted.

These fires ranged across the entire state, and the pattern seems completely random. “We can never predict where they’ll break out,” she said. Variations in topography, weather and wind influence where and how far a given blaze will spread.

Earlier this week the Alamo Fire came “within feet” of the revered Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley last week, prior to changing directions. This week, the Wall Fire in Butte County, home to 22 wineries, forced evacuation of 4,000 residents. Although evacuees were permitted to return home last night, warnings continue. As of this morning, Cal Fire reported 41 residences and 57 other structures had been destroyed or damaged.

Containment very literally means firefighters have built a line around a fire, often by bulldozing or hand clearing a road to retain the flames. The percentage of containment indicates how much of a fire is surrounded by these unnatural barriers. Irrigation may slow the flames, but it won’t stop them altogether, Williams commented, adding that a change in the wind can instantly alter a fire’s trajectory.

Unfortunately, even when vineyards are not physically singed, nothing can contain the billowing smoke. At this point in the season, as grapes are reaching véraison, which presents ongoing peril for growers that may not be fully determined until harvest.

There’s an app for that
Cal Fire issues red flag warnings and fire weather watches as needed. The type of weather patterns that can cause a watch or warning include low relative humidity, strong winds, dry fuels, the possibility of dry lightning strikes, or any combination of the above.

Cal Fire prevention tips of interest to vineyards and wineries include the reminder to use equipment safety. “Never mow or trim dry grass on a Red Flag Warning Day,” the agency states. Mow before 10 a.m. on a day when it’s not hot and windy, and never use lawn mowers in dry vegetation.

Like homeowners, wineries should ensure they maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Additionally:

• Clear dead weeds and vegetation.

• Remove leaves and tree needles from gutters.

• Trim branches 6 feet from the ground.

Vehicles should never pull over in dry grass, and trailer chains should not drag on the ground, as they might create sparks. Farm vehicles should be properly maintained with proper tire pressure and brake pads.

In April, Cal Fire launched a new app: Ready for Wildfire. It provides step-by-step preparedness checklists and will send customized alerts to users. Thousands have signed up for this service. To download the app and enroll, visit the App Store or the Google Play Store and search for Cal Fire.

 

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