It’s been a stunningly dry year across California, so when the skies poured rain across the Bay Area two weekends ago, many assumed it would end a dangerous fire season fueled by statewide drought. But fire officials aren’t letting their guard down any time soon.
While the rain was helpful in decreasing the threat of wildfires, it isn’t enough to eliminate the threat entirely, Cal Fire CZU Unit Deputy Chief Nate Armstrong wrote in an email to the Review. Armstrong said the unit is primed for fires for the entire year because of the prolonged drought and expects to remain fully staffed until Dec. 31.
“While our area may have received a fair amount of rain in this one shot, areas east of us did not receive nearly as much. So, we all need to remain staffed up to support fires that they may get,” Armstrong said.
That is the sentiment within the North County Fire Authority, according to the department’s spokesman Orlando Aguon. The department that serves Brisbane, Daly City and Pacifica is fully staffed year-round, regardless of the season or fire risk, Aguon said. A few days before the Bay Area’s record-breaking storm, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced California’s drought emergency had reached all of the state’s 58 counties. Aguon said that the recent rains haven’t appeared to make a significant impact on the dry undergrowth and dead trees that can be problematic fuel for spreading wildfires.
“Those fuel loads are still present,” Aguon said. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone be complacent around trees or anywhere where there are fuel loads.”
Aguon pointed toward the Pacifica Vegetation Reduction Chipping Program as an effective way for residents to remove fuel loads for free from their property. The program, which has been running since August, is a collaborative effort between the fire department and the city of Pacifica and was made possible by a grant from the Coastal Conservancy.
The San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit of Cal Fire, which serves much of the Santa Cruz Mountains and contracts with the Coastside Fire Protection District, was fully staffed by June. Four of the department’s 13 engines are in San Mateo County, with additional engines assigned to various Coastside stations. The fire district’s staff fluctuates each year to support other fire departments battling flames across the state. This year, a little more than 50 CZU personnel were assigned to fight the Dixie, Caldor and Monument fires in Northern California. All firefighters are back on the coast, Armstrong said.
After a record 4.3 million acres burned in 2020, Cal Fire’s total budget this fiscal year was an unprecedented $2.4 billion. That included a $576 million Wildfire Resilience Package for a variety of services like fuel reduction,
fire protection grants and defensible space and home protection. In the last five years, California has averaged about 7,800 fires and 1.3 million acres burned each year. This year, 8,240 fires have burned across 2.4 million acres, according to Cal Fire.
Due to a shortage of inmate hand crews from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were a few statewide initiatives to increase firefighter and national guard hand crews this year. The state budget allocated $143 million to establish 16 Cal Fire hand crews. But the CZU unit did not see a significant increase in staffing, nor was it able to purchase more engines, Armstrong said. The unit did work with a seasonal California Conservation Corps crew based in Watsonville, but it won’t be funded after Dec. 31.
He also noted that there isn’t an indication of higher moisture levels in the short term and it’s possible some fuels could already be drying despite the deluge over the weekend.
“Hopefully, we get some more constant moisture to really bring our fuel moisture levels up, which will decrease the overall threat and allow our folks to get a little break,” Armstrong said.