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A Forecast For San Diego Fire Season

Aired 6/21/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Will this be another cool, grey summer? Or will it be hot and dry as a bone? On this first day of summer, we'll try to get some idea about the dangers of this year's fire season in San Diego.

Will this be another cool, grey summer? Or will it be hot and dry as a bone? On this first day of summer, we'll try to get some idea about the dangers of this year's fire season in San Diego.

Guests:

Rob Balfour, meteorologist from the National Weather Service office in San Diego.

Chief Augie Ghio, Chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: As promised, an agreement between the artist, mark Patterson, and the city of Encinitas has just been released regarding the Surfing Madonna mosaic. Part of that agreement is that a new location has yet to be determined. But as our guest, Maggie Houlihan told us, it will remain in Encinitas. Removal of the mosaic is to be done as immediately as possible on a city issued permit at the artist's cost. That pull report is on our website, KPBS.org. And we will be reporting on this agreement, and the fate of the Surfing Madonna throughout the day. For several weeks, we've been seeing pictures from Arizona of the biggest wildfire that state has ever had. Shots of flames, burning foliage, and people in evacuation centers stir powerful memories here in San Diego. As Arizona struggles with its blaze, we thought we'd check in to see what the weather and firefighting experts have to say with the fire season in San Diego. We'll start with the weather forecast. On the line with me is meteorologist Rob Balfour in San Diego. Hi rob.

BALFOUR: Good afternoon Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: This is the first day of summer, 2012. If I remember, summer 2010 didn't really warm up.

BALFOUR: No it didn't.

CAVANAUGH: Should we expect the same this year?

BALFOUR: No. We're expecting a warmer summer. Right now, the pattern for this week is starting to show that, and it could carry into the weekend. And our outlook for the rest of the summer -- one of the things that's been missing is the la Nina which we thought would give us a dry season. But that's going away. So we should go back to what we normally experience. That will be the days getting warmer and dryer as we head into later in the summer. Then we'll probably be back to normal fire season activity when we get to fall.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of fall, because it's been relatively cool and moist, think that the fire danger is really low. I wonder if you can explain how fast dangerous fire weather can develop.

BALFOUR: Here in San Diego County, we're generally about 3 to 6†weeks away from a drought. We can change from having wet conditions to extremely dry fire conditions. One of the things in our favor, there's still a lot of moisture left over from the rains we had in the winter. Which are in the shrubs and the trees. Those are the heavier fuels, but the light fuels like the grasses and pine needles and leaves, they dry out. They're what we call light flashing fuels. They dry in a matter of hours. And then the branches and things, they dry on the order of about a hundred hours or a little over a week. Then the heavier fuels, they dry on the order of about a month. A period of 40-day system what we use.

CAVANAUGH: We may see typical wildfire conditions?

BALFOUR: We could. We would be at that time of year, we're always worried about the Santa Anas. All the grasses would be cured. All the shrubs will be cured. And the trees will be starting to be stressed for moisture. In a fire gets started and we had all the ideal condition, generally with a wildfire you want to have three things lined up. The fuel, the grasses and twigs and branches and trees. They'll have to be dried out, pretty much kiln dried. You want the weather conditions to be favorable, or unfavorable. High winds, low humidity. So any moisture left in the plants is sucked out by the air. Then the topography, the canyons lined up with the winds, the deserts, slopes things like that.

CAVANAUGH: We're gonna hear more about that with my next guest. I've been speaking with meteorologist Rob Balfour. And thank you, Rob.

BALFOUR: You're welcome. Good day.

CAVANAUGH: Joining me now is chief Augie Ghio, chief of the San Miguel consolidated fir district. President of the San Diego county chief firefighters' district. Hi chief, Ghio.

GHIO: How you doing Maureen? Just a correction, I'm now past president of the fire chief's association. That happened this last month.

CAVANAUGH: I will update my lead in there. Earlier this month a fire captain up in the city of Ventura told the LA weekly this fire season could be very bad. Do you share that concern?

GHIO: I do share that concern. As the meteorologist just said, our grasses are curing, if you look on the hills and the east county, you see a lot of tall grasses that are already brown. What could make it more dangerous is if citizens that live in the back country don't take the time to develop that space and clean up around their homes and think of preparing for the threat of the fire season. Then it could be even worse.

CAVANAUGH: What are the factors that show that we are prepared for a wildfire? I know that homeowners have to do certain things. I'm gonna give you a chance to repeat what you just said about preparing for wildfire. But as a community, our fire agencies, how well prepared are we for a potential wildfire this year?

GHIO: As a fire organization, the 18 cities and all of the fire districts in San Diego County are probably better prepared than we have been in the past in some aspects. We now have the advent in the last two years of the San Diego County fire authority, which brings in over 50 fire stations in the east county area, the unincorporated area of the county, in control with cal fire. We have gone from eight fire zones, we were broken up in the past down to four. So in the county of San Diego now only have four fire zones that we deal with, so it makes it easier for the coordinator to Marshall resources. And the other thing is, we've done our practice for the wildfire season. We have had our drill. We have the firefighters prepared, and the apparatus prepared. We have had cutbacks in the last few year because of the economic situation. Cal fire did not step up to four-person staffing. People in the county of San Diego lost personnel and resources. But over all, we're fairly well prepared.

CAVANAUGH: What about helicopters? A lot of people think about their use in stopping wildfire before it becomes a huge, uncontrolled fire. Where are we in our ability to have helicopters on a fire?

GHIO: Well, we're much more fortunate than we were in 2003. We have the helicopters with the City of San Diego. We have the two with the sheriff's department. They work in concert with each other. All four of those helicopters have water drop capability, firefighting capability. And we're extremely fortunate to have a great relationship with San Diego gas and electric, Sempra energy, with their heavy lift, the sun burn. So that can drop about 24, 2500†gallons at a time, where the sheriff and San Diego fire helicopters drop about 3,2500 gallons at a time. So we're better prepared than we have been in the past.

CAVANAUGH: And has cal fire agreed to fly firefighting helicopters at night?

GHIO: That's a question for cal fire. At this time do not believe they will fly at night. That's still a state issue. Not a local issue with Cal Fire.

CAVANAUGH: When will local fire agencies be at peak staffing this summer?

GHIO: Our local fire agencies are at their normal staffing pattern right now. We staff 7/24, 365 days a year with constant staffing. All of our fire stations from a local level, the cities and the fire districts, are fully staffed. We always are. We do have the ability to do surge capacity. So if we do break a big fire, all of us have reserved apparatus, and firefighters at the ready to staff those apparatus as needed. So we can serve to meet the demands needs of the fire.

CAVANAUGH: Up coming fire season is upon us. And I know that our firefighters here are now in San Luis Obispo, and even in Arizona; is that right.

GHIO: We do have some people out there in some teams right now. Arizona has been particularly hit hard this last month or so.

CAVANAUGH: Even though we have had moist, cool weather through the most of the spring, we have had the outbreaks of small fires. There's a fire burning right now in Jacumba, if I'm not wrong.

GHIO: We have had a number of small fires. That's the readiness component we were talking about earlier. The fire department can't do this alone. We need the help of the citizens in the back kitchen to be prepared, create that space, create an evacuation plan. Get ready for us, get everything set in advance of the fire, and be ready to go. Be ready to evacuate earlier. If everybody does those things, we'll be better prepared.

CAVANAUGH: And I know that you love to give us even more fire tips. I'm gonna give you a chance now about people having a place to gather, and families come together and so forth. Give us the whole fire tip speech.

GHIO: Okay, Maureen. Well, first you should have a family discomfort plan. In that plan, you not only want to have an evacuation route lined out, but you want to know where all your important papers are. Have your food and water available. Know where your emergency rations are going to be if you had to evacuate. If the kids are at school, have a communication plan for the kids to communicate with you should you have to evacuate before, you can get together as a family. Have a gathering point in some places designated as a safe area where you could meet if there is an evacuation. If you have neighbors in your area that aren't able to be on their own, they can't evacuate on their own, see if you can give them some help. That would help an awful lot. Then monitored the radios, the monitor the television, the radio is television network of San Diego County are pretty on top of what happens during a wildfire. They give out a lot of information and also have the emergency radio, one this can run on batteries or that is battery free so that you're not losing communications. But all those things together will help keep you safe. More than that, like I said, Maureen, readying your property, having the defensible space, clearing your property around, not having fire wood up against the house. Protecting yourselves by taking care of your property, before the fire.

CAVANAUGH: Daniel is calling us from Clairemont. Hi Daniel.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much, Maureen. My question is about that helicopter that you're talking about and about how it drops for SDG&E, and how we can consider that more of a liability than anything to help us. I think we need to look and see what we're doing. The best thing is getting on the things that cause these fires so you don't have to have rely on them to fight fire.

CAVANAUGH: And I guess he's questioning the idea that the SDG&E helicopter is -- how we can justify using that helicopter. But you say it's a great help.

GHIO: It really is. We don't have another resource like that in San Diego County. And quite frankly, we can't afford it. And I do share the concern that there have been a few accidents with it. But that is just beside the fact that it doesn't have that cabling system, and it's not carrying those large structures when it's fighting fire. It has an attached tank. It can also do a large bucket to drop water. So that is a very safe operation with the sunburn, SDG&E and Sempra energy. We've drilled with it, practiced with it, oriented the firefighters throughout San Diego County with it. We're very comfortable with it, and very appreciative that Sempra energy has mead made that available in this county.

CAVANAUGH: Very quickly, I had a lot of people tell me I think we're due for a big wildfire. That's not really true, is it?

GHIO: Well, I hope it's not true. I'm hoping to retire in about 20†months and I'd like to not see another one during that time. But we should always be prepared for it because we live in a very high threat area; we have tens of thousands of homes in the wildland urban interface area. And I think that's the message. We should be prepared. Whether or not it stacks up to be a dangerous fire season, we are always in a threat in San Diego County, and we should always be prepared.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with chief Augie Ghio. Chief of the San Miguel consolidated fire protection district. Thanks, chief Ghio.

GHIO: No problem, Maureen. Thank you.

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