Chief’s Corner: Red flag warnings, what they mean

Sean Bailey

As I sit writing this article, I am watching the wind relentlessly attack the trees outside my office. Besides being an annoyance to our outdoor activities, the above-average winds we have had this winter add to the potential for an extreme fire season by drying out the vegetation in the Tahoe Basin.

Sean Bailey

With the potential for another significant fire season looming, I’d like to bring attention to the weather warnings that typically precede some of California’s largest catastrophic wildfires.

The United States National Weather Service issues “Red Flag Warnings” for certain areas of our country to inform firefighting and land management agencies that the predicted weather conditions are ideal for wildland fire ignition and propagation. The issuance of red flag warnings is based on low relative humidity, gusty winds, and low fuel moisture. The combination of these factors will lead to an elevated risk for explosive fire growth.

Starting with the 2021 high fire season, NWS weather forecast offices serving California will have the option to use the phrase “Particularly Dangerous Situation” within red flag warnings. The objective is to heighten public and fire agency awareness for fire weather situations considered exceptionally rare or impactful to the public and firefighting community.

A PDS red flag warning will only be used for higher-tier weather events. In order for it to occur, there must be a combination of exceptional winds, very low relative humidity, and unusually dry fuels.

Red flag warnings are most common throughout California and in the Tahoe Basin between May and October. History shows most severe wildfires in California have occurred during red flag warnings.

What does this mean to the residents and visitors to the Lake Tahoe area?

Here are a few simple examples of what not to do on a red flag warning day. Some local fire districts even have ordinances that make many of them illegal and subject to heavy penalties:

— Do not burn brush or trash.

— Do not mow or trim dry grass.

— Do not have solid fuel burning fires in your outdoor fire pits (portable or fixed).

— Do not use fireworks.

— Do not fire live ammunition.

— Do not park your vehicle on dry vegetation.

What should you do:

— Check with the local fire department on specific regulations regarding fire safety.

— Understand and follow your local ordinances.

— Use common sense to avoid situations that could lead to accidental wildfire ignition.

Most of the local fire agencies increase staffing and awareness during Red Flag Warnings. Local fire agencies respectfully ask that you do your part. When a Red Flag Warning is in effect, please increase your diligence in practicing the basic fire safety tips that were taught to us at an early age, as well as those mentioned in this article. Thanks for doing your part to help protect the Lake Tahoe region and its citizens and visitors.

Sean Bailey is the fire chief for the Northstar Fire Department.

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