CalFire says the last six years of drought have had a horrible effect on how fires start, burn and behave. I recently had a one on one with Deputy Director Mike Mohler who told me his comment about climate change has nothing to do with politics, but it has everything to do with how firefighters predict, respond and fight fires.
Mohler says there are approximately 140 million dead trees scattered around California, and the drought has caused excessive dry brush and shrubbery. Mohler says these fuels are ripe for flames – and, what makes it even more of a risk is a burning ember from a couple miles away can land in those dry fuels and start a fire that is further away from fire operations which, Mohler says, can be extremely devastating because fires can pop up all around without warning.
THE NEW NORMAL
Mohler says when fire conditions and behavior began to get unusual people, including firefighters, would refer to it as the new normal, but Mohler says there is no such thing now because all the erratic fire behavior is normal. For instance, Santa Ana winds, while intense, used to last a relatively short amount of time. In the last few years a 72-hour Santa Ana wind event was considered unusual behavior, but the Santa Ana’s during the destructive Thomas Fire in Ventura County lasted an unprecedented 14 days. Mohler says this is evidence that weather conditions have changed.
THE CAREER FIRE
Mohler remembers the time his training officer and mentor told him to expect his career fire; the fire to end all fires; the big one you’ll never forget…well, Mohler says, that no longer exists.
When Mohler joined CalFire almost 20 years ago the fires would pop up pretty infrequently - now fires, big fires, are happening almost back to back. Mohler says today’s firefighters are hitting the dirt running with no down time between big events. That, Mohler says, is causing a whole new set of problems. I’ll tell you more about that in my final article for this series.
100K IS THE NEW 10K
Mohler remembers a time when a 10,000-acre fire was a huge deal; resources were needed from everywhere; crews were coming in from mutual aid cities and technology wasn’t nearly as advanced. Now, Mohler says, a 10,000-acre fire can be boxed in and contained by dinner time. Today, 100,000-acre fires are the norm.
Mohler says the foundation of good fire prevention begins with homeowners. He says residents need to be a partner with all fire agencies and do what’s necessary to create a defensible space around properties and structures, have a go-bag, listen to an AM radio during emergencies, and one of the most important things to remember….if you are asked to evacuate, don’t hesitate…leave!
Listen to my interview with Mike Mohler from Wake Up Call:
Photos: Cal Fire