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Jennings Fire Could Be Beginning Of Difficult Fire Season In San Diego County

Firefighters battle the Jennings fire near Interstate 8 and Old Highway 80 in Lakeside, July 11, 2017.
Cal Fire
Firefighters battle the Jennings fire near Interstate 8 and Old Highway 80 in Lakeside, July 11, 2017.

Jennings Fire Could Be Beginning Of Difficult Fire Season In San Diego County
Jennings Fire Could Be Beginning Of Difficult Fire Season In San Diego County GUEST:Tony Mecham, chief, Cal Fire's San Diego Unit and San Diego County Fire Authority

Just about a week ago we got a reminder of how quickly wildfires inside the county can spread. Just an hour after it started the Jennings Fire it was dangerous enough to close down is section of Interstate 8 and cause evacuation orders. That fire was fully contained at 400 acres but they are concerned that it may just be the beginning of a difficult fire season in San Diego. Joining me to talk about the concerns and what we can do to prepare is Tony Mecham, chief, Cal Fire's San Diego Unit and San Diego County Fire Authority . Welcome to the program. Thank you. Is a Jennings Fire an example of how wildfires can become a major threat very quickly question Absolutely. We live in this wildfire environment. We live in a wildfire environment and we went to six years of drought and then this year the rain was great but it created the flashy fuels and we saw that event. How quickly can your firefighters arrive on the scene like that and assess what is needed? We try to get to every fire within about 10 minutes. Our first fire engine for both CalFire and the district were there a few minutes after the first 911 call and within the first 10 minutes they realized it was going to be a major fire. We had over 300 firefighters there about dashing about an hour. You make the point that we've had this record-breaking drought and then we had this unusually wet winter. Can you explain how that combination is making fire officials really concerned about the seasons wildfires? When we have I await the threat, we look at three main factors the fuels, weather and the lay of the land. We are constantly monitoring the weather and we can predict that, really a major variables is our fuel conditions. Our fuels absorb the moisture from the ground and about 80% of the fuels that are out there are dead from the drought. So we can have 1000 inches of rain and it's not going to change the fact that the hills are dead. The life fuels are the ones that are receiving the moisture from the ground and from the rain. In drought years, we don't get the grass. Will we get the rain, we have the grass and the weeds all over the county. Those dry out quickly. So the Jennings Fire was a great example. It was a microscopic piece of carbon from an exhaust system that landed in that grass. The grass carries the fire and catches the larger fuels on fire. We haven't had a volume of fires in the last couple of years in San Diego because we did not have those. What about -- we been hearing about trees that have died off because of bugs in disease. Is that a factor? Very significant factor. This is a statewide issue. They absorb the moisture. When the trees start to dry out those species get into the trees and eat the interlining of the trees and then the tree dies. If you can look at San Diego county it is attacked our beautiful oak trees. So now we have the standing dead of vegetation that is eligible to burn. When you travel through Central California, there are hundreds of acres of brown force. The weather has been hot but it's been pretty humid in San Diego. Does that decrease the chance of a wildfire question mark It does. The fire needs the dry weather. So we get fires every day. When the humidity comes in, they don't get large. We are in a little low right now. We are looking into this weekend and we expect the tropical moisture to start moving out. Suggests this week we saw a very rapid fire. A fire burning 50,000 acres and traveled 15 miles and one date I did very dry conditions. Just that difference in San Diego compared to central California there have been large fires. We usually get the really dangerous weather conditions for wildfire in late summer or fall, is that right question Yes. I tell everybody the first time it snows in Utah is hot inside Real County. They are so dangerous because we've had this prolonged drying period over the summer and then you put the winds. I tell everybody that when you're in South Florida nobody stands up in front of a hurricane and when they below 60 or 70 miles and Sunday go, we are going to have fires that are going to be major fires and we are limited on what we can do. It is very dangerous conditions. How was CalFire preparing for wildfire season in the county Russia Mark has staffing been increased? We are funded for year-round operation. This season we have hired 30 firefighters. We brought in extra staff. This weekend we have people committed to northern California. I think long-term is we have to address what is gotten us into this mess and that is looking at development and where we are building homes and fuels. We can't continue to suppress every fire. I think we are undergoing a fundamental shift that fuels work during the winter. That is really the long-term fix of where we need to go. Are there any new technologies that you are employing to help them do their jobs? Something I'm excited about is our partnership that we have it's a series of cameras that are on the mountain tops. We have a video of most of them now. When we start getting that first 911 call our dispatchers can look on these cameras and based on the smoke conditions we might send additional resource. We are doing a lot of really advanced GIS mapping so the fuels I talked about were able to model those fuels and colors and really look where our highest risk areas are and then that's when we are cash concentrating our winter work. We have more analytical tools that we did many years ago. Remind us what people need to do to prepare for wildfires. I think the greatest thing I tell people is the ready, set, go program. We live in this environment and the biggest thing you can do is to the clearance around your home. I value the lives of the general public and firefighters. We have to have that clearance around homes to allow our folks to work safely. We are not going to risk firefighters so that is the first part prepare your home and make sure your address is visible. Then second is get ready to go have emergency plan and know what valuables you are going to take and what important papers and be ready to go and monitor fire conditions and then went public safety officials say to go, leave. We constantly see people that are trying to stay and then we have to then put for the risk on her folks to try to go back in a rescued these people. Prepare yourself and have a plan ready to go and when we say to leave, leave. I've been speaking with Tony Mecham, chief, Cal Fire's San Diego Unit and San Diego County Fire Authority . Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.

Just over a week ago, the Jennings fire in San Diego's East County led to an evacuation order for residents of threatened homes and shut down a portion of Interstate 8.

The fire was extinguished after burning 400 acres. No injuries or structural damages resulted from the fire.


Authorities are concerned the Jennings Fire may be the beginning of a difficult fire season in San Diego County.

Tony Mecham, Cal Fire's San Diego Unit chief and the San Diego County Fire Authority chief, joined Midday Edition on Thursday to talk about those concerns and what is being done to prepare.

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