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Suppression of California wildfires hampered by shortage of firefighters

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today |

Firefighters are getting a handle on the 20 or so fires that started during the wind event on January 19 in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties along California's north-central coast. All of them are 85 to 100 percent contained, and with rain predicted off and those percentages could only improve through Monday.

The sizes of the largest fires reported by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Friday are not likely to change:

China Grade, 22 acres; Bonny Doon Complex, 20 acres; North Butano, 15 acres; Panther Ridge, 20 acres; Freedom, 37 acres.

Starting in the middle of winter, the blazes burned during the lowest firefighter-staffing levels of the year for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Like the U.S. Forest Service, a large proportion of the on-the-ground Cal Fire suppression personnel are seasonal, laid off in the winter. A few years ago the Forest Service began to move away from using the term “fire season” in favor of “fire year,” since climate change has lengthened the “season” to include much if not all of the months on the calendar. Large wildfires have occurred at all times of the year in California.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper interviewed Ian Larkin, chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo/Santa Cruz unit, Wednesday:

“It’s a lot of hard work ... they’re [the crews] having to lay hose into a lot of this just like they did on all the fires this summer,” Larkin said. “We’re out of fire season right now, we’re in ‘winter preparedness.’ That means we have limited resources. We’re down to three fire engines that are staffed full time, so relied on our local government partners, the fire districts and the city departments, to help suppress these fires in the initial phases until we got resources that came in from out of the area.”

The reason for limited local resources, Larkin said, is because a bulk of Cal Fire wildland firefighters are seasonal hires. That’s a result of stressed financial resources, the chief said, which doesn’t allow for full staffing levels during the winter season.

“I can honestly say that no we weren’t prepared for this to happen in January, when normally it’s raining,” the unit chief said.

Larkin said Santa Cruz County residents, and his own agency, will need to get used to a longer fire season.

“There’s definitely a change occurring in the climate and that is having some type of effect here where we’re not getting the type of rain we used to get, and we’re getting hotter and drier winters,” Larkin said. “It’s 74 degrees outside right now – that’s pretty unheard of.”