Jeff Jardine

Jardine: What in the blazes? Fire on a hot streak in valley, hills

Fire at Tuolumne River Regional Park in Modesto

Fire crews battle a blaze at Tuolumne Regional Park in Modesto on Monday, June 22, 2015. (Joan Barnett Lee/jlee@modbee.com)
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Fire crews battle a blaze at Tuolumne Regional Park in Modesto on Monday, June 22, 2015. (Joan Barnett Lee/jlee@modbee.com)

Shortly after noon Monday, fire crews rushed to Legion Park along the Tuolumne River to extinguish a 6-acre brush fire. If this scene seemed all too familiar to them, it should have.

“We’ve been here already, about 12 hours ago,” Modesto fire Battalion Chief Randy Anderson said.

That’s been the pattern with the vegetation fires, according to Modesto Fire Marshal Mike Payton.

“We’ll go for a while and won’t have anything, and then all of a sudden, we’ll have a bunch,” he said. “We don’t know if they are related.”

Fire activity has been relentless all month and in recent weeks in particular. Last week, area fire crews knocked down at least one every day. Thursday, there were three big fires: A residence burned in Modesto; the vegetation fire that led to evacuations of homes in the Hogue Road area near Del Rio north of the city; and an intense industrial fire in the Beard District.

Two days later, three more fires – another home, another brush fire and another industrial.

When the one broke out Thursday at a trucking company on Beard Avenue, many of Modesto’s fire crews already were battling the blaze near Del Rio. Stanislaus Consolidated, along with crews from Ceres, responded and put out the fire that sent smoke drifting north nearly to Oakdale.

And we’re only a few days into summer, officially. The strain on resources isn’t just among fire agencies in Stanislaus County. Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit sent some of its crews to Mariposa to cover for the Mariposa Unit assigned to the Corrine fire in Madera County. The Tuolumne-Calaveras firefighters ended up fighting a fire near Mariposa.

That means someone has to cover for them in their own foothills and mountain stations.

“We’ve been lucky,” said Lisa Williams, resources secretary for the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit. “We haven’t had the outbreaks other units have had.”

But in the drought-ravaged tinderbox foothills, they know that could change at any moment. Resources that otherwise might be available to prevent a small fire from turning into a big one are somewhere else. Consequently, the various departments and the state Office of Emergency Services plan on a daily basis how they will adjust and allocate their fire crews and equipment.

“Each agency throughout Northern California,” said Dale Skiles, who serves both as Salida’s fire chief and also the fire warden for Stanislaus County’s emergency services. “Is this year worse than others? We’re living in the moment. It seems to be pretty busy right now.”

Those who run local agencies aren’t always thrilled with the statewide plan, he said.

“There’s a very critical fire watch in the Tahoe area,” he said. “Do you reposition resources for that and leave other areas (with less coverage)?”

Indeed, the Washington fire south of Lake Tahoe blew up from 300 to 9,500 acres over the weekend and could force evacuation of the town of Markleeville on Highway 89.

And in a state four years into a drought, is any one area of the foothills and forests really that much more dry than others? The chances for fire on the windy Diablo Range are just as high as Tahoe or the Gold Country or anywhere else.

In good rainfall years, officials warn about the thicker undergrowth that develops due to the rain later in the season. That creates more fuel beneath the trees and a quick route for the fire to spread up into the canopies.

At the same time, they fear the drought years because conditions are so much drier and fire spreads so quickly.

What that means, in California, is that fire is a danger no matter whether we’re in drought or coming off of record rainfall. So fire officials preach the same things now they’ve preached during non-drought times: Exercise extreme caution. Maintain 100 feet of defensible space around homes and outbuildings.

The Stanislaus National Forest announced fire restrictions effective Tuesday morning for designated moderate- and high-hazard areas of the Groveland, Mi-Wok, Summit and Calaveras ranger districts. Campfires are prohibited except in developed campgrounds. Smoking is permitted only inside cars, buildings, developed campgrounds or where there’s no flammable material. No welding. No use of explosives, which includes fireworks.

Common sense no matter the circumstances generally goes a long way toward avoiding catastrophe. By the number of fires so far, it seems to be in short supply. One second of carelessness can turn into flame.

“It can happen very quickly,” Cal Fire’s Williams said.

Twice in 12 hours at Legion Park, in fact.

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