By Matthew Renda, Courthouse News Service
(CN) — A consortium of firefighting leaders in the greater Los Angeles area convened Friday at the county fire department’s fire camp just north of Pasadena to discuss the imminent fire season.
“Imminent” is actually the wrong modifier, because according to the officials the 2021 fire season has already arrived in California, mostly due to a stark lack of rainfall during the past winter.
“The Palisades Fire started in May, which used to be unprecedented but is the norm now,” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
The fire broke out May 14 in Topanga State Park near the city of Santa Monica and burned through late May, causing evacuations and charring about 1,300 acres before it was contained.
While the damage was minimal and only one firefighter was injured, the fire was eye-opening because it came during a time of the year when there is typically enough moisture that wildland fires have trouble starting.
“We are seeing conditions now that we would typically not see until August or September,” Osby said Friday. “We received 40% of expected rainfall in the region, which is obviously troubling to us first responders.”
California has been wracked by drought, with a third of the state in the worst category according to the latest report by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The entire state is categorized by the federal agency as experiencing at least moderate drought.
As the Golden State moves into the dry summer months, firefighters are girding for what could be an intense stretch until the rains return in November.
“We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed as we get into the fall with the Santa Ana wind events,” Osby said, referring to the hot, dry downslope winds that afflict Southern California beginning in autumn. They have historically been large drivers of fire in the region.
While recent fire news has focused on Northern California, where the Camp Fire and blazes in the Wine Country have been some of the most fatal and financially devastating fires in the history of California and the United States, Southern California has also borne the brunt of increasing fire activity in recent years.
The Thomas Fire burned through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in 2017, creating what was at the time, the largest fire by acreage in state history. The recent fire seasons have been so bad that blaze now ranks seventh. Five of the top 6 largest fires in California history occurred last year, with the largest burning more than a million acres.
“We are already ahead of last year’s numbers in terms of the number of acres and the number of fires that have burned,” Osby said.
However, firefighters also touted their preparation for the upcoming season, expressing cautious optimism that an increase in staffing and the addition of more tools will help firefighters respond to blazes in moments.
“From an aviation standpoint, we have vastly more capability than we have in years past,” said Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, who also attended the press conference.
Blackhawk helicopters and fixed-wing craft capable of dumping flame retardant on quickly spreading flames have been added to the fleet of firefighting aircraft in the Los Angeles area, Fennessy said.
“It will allow us to get after these fires really, really quickly,” he said.
Glenn Barley, a unit chief with Cal Fire, also said staffing levels are already at peak, representing a commitment by California officials to respond to the developing fire season swiftly.
“We got staffed up earlier than normal this year,” he said.