Smokey Bear is one of the most recognized figures in America. His message, "Only you can prevent wildfires" is as important now as ever.
Before the summer of 2012 was even two weeks old, Northern California fire officials were already seeing signs that this was going to be an epic year for fighting wildfires. Northern California had already experienced 1,165 wildfires by early July, compared to 459 at the same point in 2011, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Low humidity, high temperatures and the aftereffects of a dry winter contributed to the sharp spike in wildfires this year. Add variables such as high fuel loads, gusting winds and lightning strikes to the mix and these conditions become even more hazardous.
Fortunately for Tuolumne, Calaveras and surrounding counties, we have four Cal Fire aircraft stationed at Columbia Air Base. Columbia has two air tankers that drop fire-retardant chemicals, a helitack helicopter that drops firefighters onto the scene and makes water drops, and an air attack plane that coordinates firefighting activities.
All Cal Fire stations are fully staffed in what is called a "peak staffing situation." Staffing levels are based on historical trends dating back decades. As of late August, approximately 7,700 firefighters were battling eight major wildfires in Northern California.
"Training requirements for today's firefighters are greater now than at any other time," said Cameron Todd, the San Andreas battalion chief. "Their motivation is high; they are physically fit and they have pride in what they do."
Todd also reports that this year's fires are "consuming large amounts of vegetation and burning with higher intensity due to the dry conditions."
The U.S. Forest Service has fire restrictions in place in "moderate hazard areas" and in "high hazard areas" of the Stanislaus National Forest.
Homeowners need to diligently follow the rules that require a 100-foot clearance of pine needles and other dry debris around their homes. This creates a defensible space for firefighters. Local governments can help by creating "wildfire protection plans" and by discouraging developments in areas with high fire danger.
Climate change is affecting the health of our forests and plays a role in the increased risks from wildfires. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported earlier this year that "California had its second driest winter on record."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also reported that July was the warmest month on record for the entire United States. In addition, the first seven months of 2012 were the warmest January through July period in history for the continental United States.
Our forests are the lifeblood of California. More than 60 percent of California's drinking water comes from our Sierra forests. Another important feature of a healthy forest is that one acre consumes 6 tons of carbon dioxide and produces four tons of oxygen annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Other benefits of a healthy forest include recreation, flood control and scenic beauty. And finally, a healthy foothill economy depends on a healthy forest.
So remember the time-tested message of Smokey Bear: "Only you can prevent wildfires."
For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus and www.fire.ca.gov.
Boyd is a resident of Arnold. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.