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Wildfire Preparedness In San Diego After The Driest Year On Record

Wildfire Preparedness In San Diego After The Driest Year On Record
Wildfire Preparedness In San Diego After The Driest Year On Record
GUESTS:CalFire Deputy Chief Kelly Zombro

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The weather in San Diego has been gorgeous this month, picture-perfect chamber of commerce sunshine and warm temperatures. Something to make people in the freezing Midwest filled with envy. There is a troubling side to this warm weather, and that is drought. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency for the state. This is the driest winter since records started being kept in the 1890s in California. With the lack of rainfall there comes an increase in fire danger. There has been an abnormal rash of winter fires and they are bracing for a very dangerous fire season ahead. I will like to introduce my guest Kelly's Zombro. Firefighters have been battling more wildfires than usual, give us a sense of how the number of fires has increased compared to a normal January. KELLY ZOMBRO: It was already bizarre last year and may of us are we had several thousand acres burning in California and we have even had a couple of weeks a month ago and Humboldt fires of a couple hundred acres which is almost unheard of, and that we just had in Los Angeles, San Diego is actually got more brain and the rest of the state but we are in drought but as well. That is a statement about not only the amount of water that is available for farmers, but also plants and trees and so on, and the fact that the trees are unable to fight off disease and so both are attacking them which makes the fuel loading even worse. It's a major problem for the state. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have heard there is about 100 fires that burned this month and in comparison, there is maybe a couple of dozen normally. KELLY ZOMBRO: Most of them we have been able to put out and keep fairly small, but is a statement to that and all of the fire agencies and federal state and local development staffing keep coming up and it's a comedy seeing the weather reports and what is coming in is always hot, dry, and windy. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It doesn't seem to change, what is the status of that Colby fire outside of LA? It has changed now, hasn't it? KELLY ZOMBRO: It is 80 to 85% percent contained, it's almost gone now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Where have most of the fires been located? Is that in northern California? KELLY ZOMBRO: It has been very active in Napa County has had several, Humboldt and Butte. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You think of California in January, this is our rainy season and California's mountains and usually snow coverage this time of year, what are condishes like this year? KELLY ZOMBRO: Terrible, I have read reports that we are currently about 20% normal snowpack which provides water as it melts to the summer seasons, that means there will be no relief coming from that. There is no prediction of any rain at this point, the last I saw was at least the next ten days still dry and warm. And of course another Santa Ana blowing in soon. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Here in San Diego County, how dry is our vegetation? Are we seeing conditions that we might usually see later in the year? KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes absolutely, and what we're typically seeing right now is vegetation starting to absorb water, and it's interesting how our vegetation knows when it is time to do that and do it successfully, but oddly enough we are actually on a decline and we're seeing our wildlife and fuel moisture starting to drop off. And so that is obviously not good, and 60% fuel moisture is critical and we are not going to reach that in the county. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Usually we see that later in the year and not now. KELLY ZOMBRO: Usually not until May, but we are already seeing that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They are hiring more than 100 additional firefighters in Northern California, is there hiring expected here in Southern California? KELLY ZOMBRO: It has already been done largely, and they have maintained staffing levels in Riverside specifically and San Diego and all of our stations are covered and when they are down staffed it is to save a few dollars when it is appropriate, we have kept our staffing levels at all stations covered in San Diego and there also a caretaker is covered and crew levels are high, our dozers are covered and we have got our workers throughout the rest of the state, they are the states fire department and so we look at the hundred twenty-six people hired, that is good for us as well and they are having issues and not have a draw from Southern California for the support, and if we have issues they can support us. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You said that the staffing levels have been maintained at a higher level, they usually decrease this time of year because of the fire danger is not as terrible as it usually is later in the year, let me ask you how did you know to do that? Do you check the weather conditions all of the time and you does cow fire determine a week to week basis? KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes, there is a very robust predictive services that and a workgroup that essentially works out of our operations center working with the Forest Service Bureau and these put together a good weather pattern and connections as well as looking where we're going with forecasts and so on giving us daily updates specifically based towards the fire and firefighting industry to get questions answered in specific to that. And they have been looking at trends in all the different items that would be able to collected and as you mentioned earlier, our history goes back and there's never been anything this bad in recorded history, and so this is wearing off after a while. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are the fire air station staying open as well? KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes, we have five now. We just opened Chico up in Butte County as well, and all nine of our helicopters are covered statewide as well as in San Diego we're fortunate with San Diego's Fire Department contractors. Those are assets that did not exist in 2003 with those fires. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Going back to the Colby fire, there are three men who are in federal custody for starting the fire, even with drought conditions don't most fires have a human source? KELLY ZOMBRO: It is not uncommon at all, it can be very innocent as simple as mowing the grass, and having a rock strike something and start a fire. It happens a lot. Again, it's not always malicious but accidental. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, is Cal fire doing some kind of outreach this year to make people more aware than they have then before about how they can actually stop a wildfire from starting or to be asked. Though joined in their behaviors? KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes there is public education opportunities that we're taking where we, we're also going out with our staff doing defensible space inspections throughout the county, it gets people's attention and gets them to take care property, but also takes care of the neighbor next door who also cares about the property, and it educates people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there anything that the public can do if they see something that they think is a fire hazard, or if they see the hate. Taking place that they think is not allowed, can they get touch with you? KELLY ZOMBRO: Absolutely, if you see any unsafe behavior, make that contact and let folks know, fireworks and campfires, they should not be there, absolutely. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To what you believe that staffing levels that you have now and the amount of resources that you have are enough to fight what could be a really dangerous fire season in California? KELLY ZOMBRO: That is a two-edged sword, we are very well prepared for initial attack, but we also base that on our partners, local government and federal firefighters as well are critical to being successful, and we do it very well together, but to say that we are ever completely ready for a fire, no one is able to stop some of those, no one can afford this kind of fire protection it would take to have a fire engine on every doorstep, it's just not feasibly going to happen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, if big fires continue to break out in Northern California, I think that we are always concerned down here that resources will be sent out because indeed your estate firing to see to help out the people of the North, but that we would grudge that does that leave us vulnerable? KELLY ZOMBRO: There's always a certain amount of risk with everything that we do, and that happens with local fire and federal government in all of us go to these things, sometimes on a daily basis and with us it's on a bigger scale, when major fires burn. But we do cover and bring our reserves and should stop and do staffing patterns that we've been doing all of through these set and is in preparation for that, for instance we can send a strike team of engines overhead to Los Angeles and kept our stations filled with backfill. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The governor declared a state of emergency for California, and last year was about fire year as well, some people are speculating that this is the new normal for California. Perhaps we will not always be in as severe drought as refiners of this year, but the increased staffing levels and increased risk of wildfire, that something that we live with now? KELLY ZOMBRO: That is something we live with no, but there is a cyclical situation going on and there is a cycle that brings drier conditions to us and perhaps that is what we're into, we start looking at these going on in the East Coast and the hurricanes that they have had, I have heard predictions that that is only bad because we don't know what is to come, it's hard to say. Just like addicting hurricanes, there's no knowing for sure, we have a lot of winds and it does not mean that we have to have big fires. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for coming in talking to us and I want to let our listeners know that we are in a dangerous situation, and I have been speaking with Cal Fire Deputy Chief Kelly Zombro.

Follow our latest coverage of wildfires in San Diego.

The weather in San Diego has been gorgeous this month; picture-perfect, chamber-of-commerce sunshine and warm temperatures — something to make people in the freezing Midwest and East Coast filled with envy.

But, there's a very troubling side to our warm, sunny winter: drought.


Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency for the state.

Weather experts say this has been the driest winter since records started being kept in the 1890s; With the lack of rainfall, comes an increased fire danger.

State fire fighters have been handling a larger than normal rash of winter fires and they are bracing for a very dangerous fire season ahead. Cal Fire officials say they've responded to more than 150 wildfires in the first 20 days of this year.

The drought declaration for California means Cal Fire will hire more fire fighters and increase resources to prevent and respond to wildfires.