According to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “The 2016 wildfire season is off to a worrisome start. Southern California, the Great Basin in Nevada, portions of the Southwest, and even Florida and Hawaii are particularly vulnerable this year. In California, more than 40 million trees have died, becoming dry fuel for wildfire.”

Vilsack and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell were discussing the fire season with the agency’s regional foresters last month.

Through May 27, 19,800 fires have burned nearly 1.6-million acres. A year ago, more than 21,400 fires had consumed only 390,000 acres. During the first five months of 2016, more acres have burned than any years since 2006, when nearly 41,000 fires burned 2.5-million acres. The 10-year average of burned acres through May 27 is 1.2 million acres.

From January through May 2015, 317 wildland fires burned in Riverside County; for the first five months of 2016, 236 wildland fires have burned.

“Heavy fine-fuel loadings are expected across the Southwest and Great Basin, and lower elevation areas of Southern and Central California,” according to the Predictive Services Unit at the National Interagency Fire Center. “This will likely increase fire activity in these areas throughout fire season, especially when associated with dry and windy periods. Fire activity will begin in May and June across the Southwest …”

Consistent with the report, which was released on May 1, nine of 11 current big fires are in the Southwest, including seven in Arizona. By July and August, the National Outlook predicts “above-normal potential” for fire activity in Southern California.

The drought, beginning its fifth year, exacerbates the fire threat, according to the Predictive Services Unit: “The past winter did result in a few heavy rains and the grass crop is heavier in many areas compared to the last three years. Therefore, there is an increase in fine-fuel loading this year and once these grasses cure, any new start could rapidly transition into the heavier dead fuels. Significant fire potential will be above normal in all areas outside the desert, except those areas which experienced above-normal precipitation.”

Riverside County Fire will have its full summer staffing next week, said the department’s Bautista Division Chief Bill Weiser, who is responsible for the entire Hill area — Poppet Flats to Piñyon. “There will be two engines again at Station 23,” he confirmed.

Another 22 firefighters have been assigned to Riverside County, according to RCFD Capt. Lucas Spellman, the public information officer. The extra firefighters and helicopter staff and the arrival of the S-2 aircraft a month early are a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s drought executive order.

The U.S. Forest Service is completing its staffing and will be at full levels by July 10. At that time, all stations in the San Jacinto Ranger District will be open seven days per week, according to Fire Chief Fred Espinoza.

He raised three issues, which will garner attention from the district’s firefighters. First, he agreed with Weiser about the rainfall’s effect on the grass crop. “This presents more opportunities for fires on the side of the road or camp sites,” Espinoza said.

In addition, the dry spring has already dropped fuel moisture levels to mid- to late-July levels. Thirdly, the lack of a significant snow pack this year means that higher elevation fuels will be possible problems sooner than late summer or early fall.

Despite these concerns, he felt the district and Hill were in “better shape than last year. It could be a busy fire season.” However, he added that he has experienced critical fire conditions in some past seasons, but the fire starts were not limited. Without a crystal ball, firefighters won’t know for sure until late fall.

Weiser stressed that local residents should clear low fuels from around their homes and know the escape routes in case of a major fire, such as 2013’s Mountain Fire.

While rainfall has been below the historic average of 24 inches, more has fallen this season than in the last two years. Consequently, the grass crop is greener and greater than during the 2014 and 2105 spring seasons, when it barely appeared. “These fuel loadings could carry a fire,” he warned.

The state inspections in areas outside of Idyllwild Fire District have started, Weiser said, and are “looking good.”