Busy fire season on tap or Colusa County agencies

Fire crews, which included a Colusa County strike team, battle the Wall Fire in Oroville.

This fire season is already shaping up to be a busy one across California, as 2,905 fires have burned just over 68,000 acres since the beginning of the year.
Last year, in the same time-frame, there were 2,270 fires that had burned about 30,500 acres.
“It’s already bad,” Williams Fire Chief and Office of Emergency Services (OES) Coordinator Jeff Gilbert said. “ I was in a meeting yesterday for State OES, and we’re significantly ahead of last year, as far as fire and acres burned. They’ve just seen an increase, and they really think it’s because of the grasses. All the rain has brought on a huge grass crop, and with that it’s easier to ignite.”
Adding to the potential for a devastating fire season is that fact that after years of drought, longer-burning fuels – like brush and trees – haven’t yet recovered, despite a wetter-than-average winter. So far that hasn’t been the case, especially in the northern part of the state.
“We’re seeing a lot of fires, but they’re not getting into the hundreds of thousands of acres. We’re starting to catch them in that 7- to 10-day time-frame” Gilbert said. “But look at our temperatures: We haven’t had an 80- to 92-degree day in weeks. We’re looking at low-teen to single-digit humidity. Thank God we haven’t had any north wind. Everything has been south-pushed, which is usually a cooling effect. If we get a north wind, it is going to be incredible. I think we’re just at the start of it.”
“It’s a serious deal this year,” Arbuckle Fire Chief and OES Alternate Casey Cox said. “We’ve had some fires already that have been very violent, because the fuels are so tall and so dry. We’re notoriously busy during late summer to early fall. The star thistle dries, the north wind blows… As busy as it seems, we’re just at the beginning. People need to practice extreme caution.”
Colusa County’s local agencies are already getting involved outside the county, having sent out a strike team to the Wall Fire in Butte County last week.
Now 98 percent contained, the Wall Fire burned over 6,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than 100 buildings from the time it started on July 7. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Firefighters and equipment from the Maxwell Fire Department, Colusa City Fire Department, Sacramento River Fire Protection District, and Meridian Fire Department were a part of that strike team.
“We already sent one strike team out,” Gilbert said. “We went up for the intitial attack on the Wall Fire on Friday afternoon, and they were released (Thursday) afternoon.”
There have been some grass fires locally, too, including a few in the Stonyford area related to marijuana grows, Gilbert said.
On Thursday, firefighters from Bear Valley/Indian Valley Fire Protection District and the Williams Fire Protection District were able to contain a grass fire between two residences at Century Ranch in Stonyford.
“Locally, we’ve had 4 fires in the Bear Valley/Indian Valley Fire District already this year. Three of them have been related to marijuana,” Gilbert said. “One of those was in Ladoga, and two were in Century Ranch.”
California feeling the strain as firefighting resources dwindle
Gilbert said that between budget cuts and a decrease in volunteerism, the state’s firefighting resources have decreased significantly over the years.
“During the 2007 and 2008 fire years, State OES would push out up to 1,500 engines across California,” Gilbert said. “That number is made up mainly of local governments or OES, and not counting CAL FIRE. During the last two years, they’ve been struggling to get between 700 to 900 out.”
Paid departments are having to cut positions and simply lack the manpower to send firefighters out on strike teams while still covering their own districts. Meanwhile, volunteer departments are struggling to fill their ranks. Gilbert said that Colusa County’s departments were fairly lucky to have a strong core of volunteers, but noted that many small departments in the region are struggling.
“Robbins, Knight’s Landing, Elkhorn – a lot of these little departments are struggling. There are no jobs in these communities, and people aren’t around to volunteer,” Gilbert said.
In many departments, including Williams, calls for service have been going up at the same time: In 2003, for example, Williams firefighters responded to between 350 and 400 calls. Last year, there were 920 calls for service.
“Granted, a majority of those are medical calls, but you still have to get guys out there. You put that burden on a volunteer, and they’ve got to wake up and go to work in the morning,” Gilbert said. “We ran eight calls just yesterday. Williams has doubled in population in the last 15 to 20 years. We’re going to see an influx in more commercial activities, more travelers on the highway, and these things just keep adding up.”
While Gilbert said that his department has a solid core of volunteers, the number of volunteers has not kept pace with the increase in Williams’ population.
Gilbert attributed the decrease in volunteerism partly to the increasingly stringent training and requirements for volunteer firefighters, and partly to a lack of civic involvement from millennials. The latter extends beyond the realm of volunteer firefighting, he said.
“If you go and call every civic group in, or that used to be in this county, there’s nobody involved anymore. Nobody wants to get involved,” Gilbert said. “Kids just aren’t used to giving back… it’s part of the millennial mentality of, ‘What’s in it for me,’… It’s going to be interesting to see where this goes in 20 years.”
Fire seasons getting longer, firefighters “burning out”
Gilbert said that fire seasons, especially for strike teams, typically didn’t begin until August in the north state. It didn’t start in the southern part of the state until the end of September or early October.
“Now, we’re seeing it start in May, and it’s going until it rains,” Gilbert said. “Even the state’s Cal Fire guys, seasoned guys, are getting burned out. The season used to be four months, and now it’s six months – half the year. With all of these calls, being called in for overtime – it’s affecting everybody, and people are just getting burned out.” ■

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Brian Pearson is the Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects include reporting on local government and the newly feature sports page. To contact Brian about this article, or for future articles, please email him at brian@colusacountynews.net