Jeff Jardine

Early fire season, but fewer inmate crews for prevention

During drought years, trees and brush get drier. Some will die, making them nothing but kindling should a fire strike.

Conversely, you might deduce that in closer-to-normal rainfall years such as the one ending officially next week, more rain means lower fire danger in the mountains, foothills and valleys below. Deduce again.

“We’ve seen an increase in what we call light, flashy fuels,” Salida Fire Protection District Chief Dale Skiles said. “The first time (normal winter rains), the grass grew. The late rains in the spring kept it coming.”

The upshot? No fire season is immune to major fires. Some are simply less destructive than others. Fire officials will tell you that if they make it through a year without major blazes threatening or destroying homes or the forests, they’ll utter a collective “whew” and then begin sweating out the next season. Same goes for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service in the foothills and Sierra, where an estimated 29 million trees were killed by the prolonged drought and bark beetle infestations. That number could “double or triple” when updated figures are released later this week, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Dead trees go up like matches.

In the Valley, drought conditions helped turn a vegetation fire north of Modesto a year ago into a blaze that burned one home and several other buildings. It forced the evacuation of a dozen homes near the Del Rio Golf and Country Club. Already this year, several vegetation fires scorched acreage in north Modesto and to the east near Knights Ferry.

“We’ve seen an uptick in the amount of (vegetation) fires,” Modesto fire Chief Sean Slamon said. “And the fire behavior we’re seeing now is more like what we’re used to seeing in July or August (in no-drought years).”

All of this has put an increased emphasis on prevention, they say. Weed abatement officers respond to complaints of potential fire hazards and put the onus on the landowners to clean them up. But another significant resource dried up two years ago, diminishing the availability of county jail inmate work crews to help reduce the fire risk. Proposition 47, which California voters passed in 2014, reduced certain drug possession felony convictions to misdemeanors. And Assembly Bill 109, also known as realignment, put the responsibility of certain felons and parolees on the county jail systems, leaving no room at the inn for many nonviolent offenders.

Consequently, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said, many of the lower-level offenders he now oversees don’t qualify for inmate work crew duty by the nature of their crimes.

“I still send road crews out,” he said. “But where I used to have four, I’m now down to two. I don’t have the available criminal offenders who meet the requirement to get road crew duty.”

And the ones who do are given beautification projects that help them develop landscaping skills.

“We’ll try to provide a skill set and help them get jobs,” Christianson said.

The others, he said, spend most of their crew time removing sofas, TVs, tires, appliances and other stuff discarded illegally along county roads.

“They’re all tied up handling trash dumps,” Christianson said. “You don’t know how much that infuriates me, how some people simply have no regard for anybody else.”

Slamon said his department would use the inmate crews along the Tuolumne River, in the Regional Park and along Dry Creek.

“We used them to take out lots of the weeds and heavy brush along the creek,” Slamon said. “That keeps fires from getting up into the trees and from expanding. But since Prop. 47, we haven’t had them.”

Which might explain why flames at blazes last summer in Legion Park along the Tuolumne and also in Dry Creek along Scenic Drive shot up 30 feet into the treetops, spreading the flames and requiring more resources – firefighters and equipment – than would have been necessary had the grass and brush been removed ahead of time.

Likewise, Salida Chief Skiles would use the inmate crews more if they were available to clear out some areas along the Stanislaus River and other places where the grass along the roads, when met by a tossed-out cigarette or anything else combustible, will combust. But they are not available. Thus, proaction falls upon those with the most to lose.

“Property owners need to take it upon themselves to keep their places clear, especially where there are wooden fences,” Skiles said. “Welcome to fire season in Stanislaus County and the state.”