Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott was at Ryan Air Attack Base in Hemet Friday as part of a statewide effort for Wildfire Awareness Week. Joining him were several major Cal Fire officials, as well as representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the state Office of Emergency Services and Riverside County, including 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington.
The fourth year of the current drought exacerbates the concerns for a potentially busy fire season.
“We have already had more than 1,100 fires in the first four months [of 2015],” Pimlott said. “That is twice as many as a normal year.
“It’s the most extreme fire conditions in history,” he warned. “This is the second year in a row that Governor Brown has provided an unprecedented number of resources to Cal Fire.”
More than 70 extra engines were staffed during the winter and two additional large air tankers were ready for action.
“We are ready with our partners. We don’t do it alone,” he said.
“We are a cooperative, integrated regional fire system,” said Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins. “We work shoulder-to-shoulder with federal, state, local and tribal agencies. We are prepared to initiate vigorous attacks on all fires.”
Shawna Legarza, the Forest Service’s director of Fire and Aviation for Region 5, re-enforced Pimlott’s warnings and advised visitors and locals to heed any changes in forest restrictions.
The Forest Service also geared up earlier this year. Its air tankers and helicopters are ready and the hiring of seasonal firefighters has already begun, she added.
“In Southern California, we’ve staffed all our fire stations,” said Dale Hutchison, Cal Fire’s chief of its Southern Operations unit. “Peak staffing will be available in mid-May.” Cal Fire used the winter to begin training and preparing staff for this summer and fall.
Fire officials also were aware of the drought’s effect on the region’s water supplies. Cal Fire staff already are surveying local lakes, creeks and ponds for the availability of water if needed, according to Hutchison.
In response to a question about the status of Lake Hemet, Hawkins recognized the problem of taking water from static lakes with little recovery, but added, “There’s enough water in Lake Hemet, but there would be a downstream impact.”
Although Pimlott acknowledged that fire retardants could help, he stressed, “Water at the end of the day is the best firefighting extinguishment tool. We can’t get away from that. But all agencies are looking to minimize the use of water.”
“The potential [fire] dangers that exist within the 3rd District are a grave concern to me,” said Washington. “When I visit Idyllwild, I see many signs of the challenges, including the beetles and lack of water, which is drying out faster than in the valley.”
Every fire official advocated that citizens become familiar with the concepts of “Ready, Set, Go” and use them to prepare and respond to fire threats.
“We need the public to step up and abate their property,” Pimlott urged. “Remove all the dead material around their homes and structures. Fires can be mitigated.”
Also participating in the event was Kim Zagaris, chief of Fire and Rescue for the California Office of Emergency Services.
More information on how to prepare homes and family in case of wildfire may be found at www.ReadyForWildfire.org.