Interim San Miguel Fire Chief, Gary Croucher
Related Story: San Miguel Fire Chief Says Heat Condition Ripe For Wildfires
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Wednesday, July 11th. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story on Midday Edition, as the heat wave continues in San Diego's east county, a new report is warning of fire dangers caused by people. More than 90% of Southern California's fires are apparently caused by humans, as opposed to about 60% in the nation overall. Joining me is my guest, interim San Miguel fire chief, Gary Croucher. Welcome back to the show.
CROUCHER: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: We'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have questions about summer barbecues, fireworks, or any other potential fires sparked this summer? Chief Croucher, as I mentioned, this has been the first real heat wave this summer with temperatures in the 90s and even hundreds in the east county. What's the current fire danger in San Diego County?
CROUCHER: We're currently high to extremely high. The current weather conditions, the heat not only affects the fuel moistures, it affects the firefighters themselves, as far as their abilities to do the job. And then it has -- with the winds that come up. So luckily right now, we don't have the east winds, but all of the other conditions are lined up to the point in time where, for us, we're extremely concerned. The potential is there again this year, just like in 2003 and 2007. And we just prepare ourselves for those type of events, and hopefully any fire starts small, and we are -- our goal is to keep those as small as possible.
CAVANAUGH: Are there any current fires that you're working in your district right now?
CROUCHER: Our district is not. For San Miguel. CAL FIRE has a couple throughout the state. But they also covered up behind those resources with reserve engines and some of those type of things, and we have such a great collaborative agreement between the agencies now that we really work together more than ever before.
CAVANAUGH: I was just thinking of the report that we ran today during KPBS morning edition citing the U.S. forest statistics that between 2001 and 2011, 94% of wildfires in Southern California were caused by humans. I think many people -- I know I was surprised to hear that. Are you?
CROUCHER: Yeah, I think a little bit surprised. We know different things cause them, but we also look at what's intentional versus what's unintentional. The intentional fires, that's where we have our fire investigators and prevention bureau that goes out and tries to mittedigate those. But then we have the unintentional. Whether it be barbecues, whether it be the people trying to do the right thing, and that's clear the weeds, but they don't take the right precautions. As the heat of the day increases -- you really want to get out there before 10:00 AM, and do your work not only for you as an individual, but the increased risk of fires starting from cutting those weeds are substantially more after 10:00 as the heat of the day comes in.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller. We're inviting your calls. Hi, Steve, welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: I've been up here in Valley Center, east Escondido, for 15, 20 years, and it seems every time we have a fire the contractors come out and mow the grass after the fire along the sides of the roads. And it's the silliest thing in the world. I always wonder why don't we have the will to spend this money before the fire starts than afterwards? And we also have a lot of neighbors who the fire department says you got to clean it up, but this doesn't seem to be follow-up, and there's a lot of growth there.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks for the call. What about that mitigation? Do you have enough funds and people to go out in your district, I know you don't cover the entire county, but to try to do some fire mitigation before these fires start?
CROUCHER: We have in the San Miguel area, a mire mitigation program. We do the notices to the public as far as after we've inspected them. If we have hazard or high-risk areas that need the weeds cut, a private contractor will go out, clear the weeds regardless of whether or not the homeowner does or not, we'll clean them and then we'll any ever reimbursement later. But the key is to get it done ahead of time. Afterwards is a little late. It's helpful for any additional fires. But at the same point in time, prevention ahead of time is what we're looking at.
CAVANAUGH: You talked about the incident recently, a man accidentally started a fire with his weed whacker. He was trying to clean up the brush. How quickly can a small fire, when you put down let's say a hot weed whacker or something like that on the ground, a small fire starts, how quickly can that spread in conditions during a hot summer day?
CROUCHER: Well, it can catch you off guard. And you'd be amazed how quickly a small fire can spread to the point where it's no longer in it your control. Make sure you have a shovel nearby, make sure you have a water source, a garden hose or something, and don't put a hot motor down any the dry brush. Same thing as parking your car. Don't pull off to the side of the road and park your car over the dry brush. But the key is a quick notification for us should a fire start. Having your cellphone with you if you're out in the yard, being able to call 911 right away because we need to get the resources on scene as quickly as possible.
CAVANAUGH: How should people handle things like barbecues or any other kind of outdoor bushing burning that one would suppose would be legal during this time?
CROUCHER: Trying to keep the common sense. When you have your barbecue set up, don't set it up in the brush area. Set it up in an area that you have your weeds cleared out, have it over the cement area. Make sure you have the garden hose. Don't be pouring gasoline on it, use lighter fluid. As common as some of these things sound, people just don't think sometimes. And you get caught off guard.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Exactly. And if somebody does start a fire, are they liable for those costs of fighting the fire?
CROUCHER: Yes, I that could be liable. I think the big difference that we look at is whether or not it was intentional, whether or not it was unintentional, what the consequences were. Their children, they can be liable for their children. But like the fire we just had, no, we don't go after recovery costs on that. This was a resident who was trying to do a good thing. We're here to help.
CAVANAUGH: Johan from black mountain, welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: We lost our house in the 2003 cedar fire in Scripps Ranch. And I was wondering about the -- of course they cleared the hillside, and it was pretty much naked. And after the fire, the eucalyptus trees grew back with a vengeance. So in the meantime, I had planted a bunch of oak trees on my property line that SDG&E had provided. And I would love to get rid of these eucalypt uttrees that are right on my property and are pretty dangerous. I was wondering if the chief had any information or if anybody has any idea how I could do that without getting thrown in jail.
CROUCHER: You'd need to talk to the county of San Diego. The San Diego County fire authority is contracted with CAL FIRE. And if you make some of those contacts, they should be able to help you. They have not just the information but the ability to talk with the county as far as going through, being able to come out, visit the property, look at what you're talking about, because we also have the environmental issues that we deal with that we can't clear certain areas. And that can be frustrating at time, but hopefully the fire department can assist you through that county process and with the county fire authority being in place now, the county and the fire authority are in the same location.
CROUCHER: So Ralph Steinhoff, and Ken Miller, are great resources.
CAVANAUGH: What if you see your neighbors who have been asked and required to cut back on their brush and they don't do it? Is there any resource for someone? You're in the same community as a person like that. And the idea is if that catches your fire, your house might.
CROUCHER: In particular the San Miguel fire district, we do have it. You can call the headquarters office. We'll actually have somebody go out and take a look at it, and we can do the weed abatement even without the homeowner's permission.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, interesting. During this heat wave that we've been having, humidity has also been pretty high. Is that lessens the fire risk, doesn't it?
CROUCHER: Yeah, officially on the starts as well. There's a certain point where for example cigarettes will ignite a fire when the humidity gets to a certain level, versus it being higher. When it's higher, the fires don't tend to start as easily or as quickly. And if has to do with a lot of things, the history of the area, what the fuel load is, what topography is in the area. So we've been in a drought for quite some time. So as we monitor the fuel moisture of the plants themselves, they affect the way the plant grows. If there's a lot of rain, we hear it's going to be a bad fire season. Then we hear there's no rain, it's going to be a bad fire season. It changes the way the fires grow. We have a lot of growth, new growth from moistures and rains, we get a lot of light flashy fuels, it's a faster fire that we deal with, as opposed to heavier fuels. It's a slowing burning fire but much more intense.
CAVANAUGH: As you were saying earlier, it seems that the fire danger increases or decreases during certain times of the day?
CROUCHER: Yes, that's where we have burn permits. But really from about 10:00 to 4:00, those are the times we're extremely concerned. But once again, depending on the weather.
CAVANAUGH: Now, at the San Miguel fire district, how do you go about monitoring fire conditions?
CROUCHER: We work collaboratively with the other fire agencies. We look toward CAL FIRE for some of their information, and they make that information readily available to us. They do Southern California or from south ops, they do daily webcasts that we can look at, weekly updates. SDG&E has provided some web links we can assessment our dispatch center will change from a low wild land dispatch on to a medium or high. And that changes the resources we send to an incident. And we go from there. But the key is we're all talking together.
CAVANAUGH: We often talk about lighted cigarettes being thrown out of a car. Are fires still traced to that kind of a cause as well?
CROUCHER: Yes. As much as you don't think it would, it is one of the causes that will come back through the investigation process. We'll find that, yeah, there was an active cigarette that was thrown that wasn't put out and just tossed from a wind. So carelessness is definitely one of the issues. And cigarettes is a contributing factor.
CAVANAUGH: Is there one major cause of these accidentally started fires that you are familiar with in your district?
CROUCHER: I think it's where people are trying to do the right thing. They're out there, trimming, using metal blades on the weed eaters instead of the vinyl or the string, they try to gas it up while they're doing it, and they overfill it, and the gas hits the exhaust and ignites. Using regular lawn mowers that are meant for grass and trying to out those out in the vegetation, all it takes is one spark. And if you haven't prepared for that fire, it's something you need to call us.
CAVANAUGH: What about unsupervised kids? Is this accidental or arson?
CROUCHER: For us, it's arson. Whether it's kids playing with fireworks or -- it caused a vegetation fire that was right up against some apartments. A very serious fire. Kids need to realize, parents need to make sure they're overseeing the kids. But yes, sometimes innocent playing around results in very serious results. The loss of property or even the loss of life or injury.
CAVANAUGH: According to CAL FIRE, more than 5,500 acres have burned in San Diego County this year. Do we know the cause of those fires? Are they aligned with that 90% human-caused rate that we heard about today?
CROUCHER: I'm not sure that I know. Already this year in the county, we're up 20% higher than we've been in years past in regards to the quantity of starts that we have had. Upon in the state, we're up 75% more fires at this point of the year.
CAVANAUGH: Do we know why?
CROUCHER: No. It's the weather conditions are obviously a contributing factor. Some things that would have been doing before where you're not, with the heat index the way it is, if you haven't been in that weather pattern previously, then you don't expect the starts that you have. But the key is the drought -- our snow pack is 46% lower than it was last year. So it's all of the conditions that line in together, it affects all of us.
CAVANAUGH: One quick question. You were in negotiations with CAL FIRE to contract out services to that state agency. Has that deal been finalized?
CROUCHER: Not finalized. We're working with our employees still. One front we're working on is the actual contract with CAL FIRE. And we're meeting every other week on that one. And the opposite weeks, we're meeting with the employees for a transitional MOU. But it's progressing, we're dealing with most of the issues that have arisen, and we're hoping for a transitional target date of January 1st.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for all that good information.