Damp Calif winter leads to more grass fires | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Damp Calif winter leads to more grass fires

THOMAS WATKINS,Associated Press

DIAMOND BAR, Calif. (AP) – Winter and springtime rains across California have led to a bumper crop of grasses and plants that feed wildfires, though fire chiefs are expecting a normal fire season overall, officials said Thursday.

Already this year, nearly 400 more fires have broken out on land managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection than occurred by the same date last year, the agency’s acting director Ken Pimlott said.

But the extra moisture has a flipside that will help firefighters – at least for now. Trees and heavier plants will stay wetter for longer, meaning many wildfires will fizzle after lighter grasses have burned off.

CalFire is responsible for 31 million acres of land across the state.

Pimlott and other officials stressed how important it is for homeowners to make sure weeds and dead grasses have been cleared from around their properties.

Southern California fire chiefs met with state fire officials in Diamond Bar, east of Los Angeles, to strategize ahead of the upcoming fire season. Among the issues being discussed were ongoing cuts to state and local fire departments as cash-strapped governments scramble to balance their books.

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CalFire has had its fire protection budget of $594 million cut by $56 million. As a result, fire engines will be sent out with only three crewmembers instead of four. Local fire departments have laid off firefighters, closed stations and seen support staffs shrink.

In a 16-county area in Northern California, there are 50 fewer fire engines available to the Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates local departments’ response for mutual aid emergencies, the agency’s fire and rescue chief Kim Zagaris said.

“The line is thinner and it’s becoming harder and harder,” Zagaris said. “You can only chip away so far before it hits bottom.”

Pimlott and other officials, however, said the public would not see any reduction in wildfire response.

“California is as well prepared as ever this year,” Pimlott said.

Although fire officials expect an average wildfire season, all bets would be off in the event of a Santa Ana wind season this fall. Those super-heated winds gust from the desert into Southern California and often fan huge blazes that quickly spiral out of control.

Also Thursday, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said his agency had finalized a deal with the U.S. Forest Service that will allow county firefighting aircraft to make night flights against wildfires on federal forestlands.

The deal to loosen restrictions came after months of criticism over the handling of a 2009 blaze in Angeles National Forest that destroyed dozens of home and threatened thousands of others in foothill suburbs as it grew to 250 square miles.

The Forest Service had discouraged night flying because of risks of flying in darkness in rugged national forests.

Critics contended the blaze might have been checked by an overnight air attack during its early stages.

Under the new agreement, only helicopters will be able to fly in the dark, as these are equipped with night vision equipment.