Active Wildfire Season, Drought Concerns Firefighters

The Bay Area isn’t even out of March yet, and already, Cal Fire is sending out the warning that it has seen the worst start of a year with more than 650 wildfires so far this year – that’s triple the usual number of wildfires California usually has.

Firefighters aren’t only worried about having to battle more blazes, they’re concerned about whether they’ll have enough water to fight these fires.

Cal Fire’s helicopter water drops require big buckets, typically 500-gallon and up to seven feet tall, to fully submerge in the nearest available water source.

“A water dropping helicopter [usually] uses a bucket suspended from beneath the helicopter, which they have to dip into some type of reservoir. The reservoir has to be deep enough to actually submerge the whole bucket, otherwise it won’t work very well,” explained Richard Sampson, Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz Division Chief.

The critical problem there, Sampson added, is the time that’s lost in fighting a fire – every second lost is a second the fire is growing bigger.

“So in some places around the state, we’re finding normal water supplies where we’d normally be able to dip a bucket just not available. So we might have to fly twice as far,” he said.

What’s more limiting is if a fire ignites in smaller and more rural areas, where small water tanks are often the main source for that community.

“When that’s their only source of water for drinking water, it might be that we don’t have the opportunity to take that water,” Sampson said. “So we’d have to truck water in to fight the fire, and that just takes more time. It allows the fire to get larger so it’s going to be more difficult this year.”

The division chief said this is the first year Cal Fire has assigned people to specifically monitor water levels at various sources across the state. It’s happening in a time when staffing is already stretched thin. He said firefighters with the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire division have been sent to 22 fires in the last two weeks alone.

And there are also new signs of just how dangerously dry it’s gotten around the Bay Area.

“Typically here in San Mateo County, because we have the fog and the weather, fires are relatively tame,” said Scott Ernest, a Cal Fire battalion chief.

Not so anymore. In fact, officials with North County Fire, which serves Daly City, Brisbane and Pacifica, said coastal or near-coastal areas have the padded comfort of fog and moisture, leading to rare worries about fire danger at least until the actual season.

“Two-and-a-half acres burned in grass half-a-mile off the beach in Half Moon Bay just last week,” Sampson said. “Having a grass fire in March when we usually don’t get grass fires burning on the coast till August is just unheard of.”

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