In the News

Editorial

Early onset to fire season

By Sentinel Editorial Board
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 5/1/13

Writing about an impending wildfire season is a rite of early summer, with the onset of warm weather and an end to the rainy season.

We don't usually write such a message in mid-spring, however.

But this year seems ominous in terms of fire risks. The week's warmer temperatures are combining with brisk winds to already make firefighters nervous, especially in heavily forested areas in Santa Cruz County, which has experienced a number of devastating wildfires in recent years.

Normally, the hills are still green this time of year and April showers have brought impending May flowers.

What April showers? Santa Cruz recorded only 0.7 inches of rainfall in April, about a third of what we normally receive in the month. For the year, we've received a little over half of what normally falls. And while last year was considered dry, this year's totals are significantly below the 2011-12 season.

The problem would be far worse if a series of storms had not moved through the coast into the coastal hills in autumn and early winter. But come January, the spigot turned off, and virtually no rain of any consequence has been recorded since.

We've recently written how this dry pattern dramatically underscores the water supply situation in Santa Cruz County; water restrictions are already in place for customers in the Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water districts, serving much of the county's population.

The argument for an expensive desalination plant may gain new traction as well.

But with this week's combination of high temperatures and wind, the potential for wildfires is on the immediate horizon, even if Santa Cruz County has been spared from a major wildfire since 2009. For the record, and to revive memories, however, here is what happened in 2008-09:

Summit Fire: 4,270 acres burned in May 2008, 63 homes were destroyed. Cost to fight fire: $14.9 million. Cause: Burn pile not properly attended.

Martin Fire (Bonny Doon): 520 acres burned, June 2008, three homes destroyed. Cost: $5.4 million. Cause: Unknown hiker.

Trabing Fire (Larkin Valley area): 630 acres, June 2008, 26 homes destroyed. Cause: Sparks from vehicle exhaust.

Lockheed Fire (North Coast): 7,187 acres, August 2009, no homes but 13 structures destroyed. Cost: $26.6 million. Cause: Unattended fire.

Loma Fire (Mount Madonna Road area): 485 acres, October 2009, one mobile home and seven recreational vehicles along with seven outbuildings destroyed. Cost: $4 million. Cause: Sparks from a state fire agency's brush clearing project.

And those were just the major fires. While there have been numerous smaller wildfires since, the county has been spared the havoc and heartbreak of any major blazes.

We don't know, of course, whether this season, with its precarious fire conditions and early onset of summer conditions, portends new fire disasters.

But firefighters are keenly aware the Santa Cruz Mountains are heavily wooded, with lots of brush and dry grasslands that help feed fires. To make matters more dangerous, many wooded regions are remote -- and if there are roads, they're often narrow and poorly maintained, making access difficult.

The good news is that social media such as Twitter and Facebook can provide almost instant alerts and updates for residents in fire-prone areas, even if postings are not necessarily accurate. Homeowners and renters also can resolve to keep brush and other debris cleared for 100 feet around the perimeter of buildings, thus dramatically improving the chances for saving a home in a wildfire.

Do your part, and you'll sleep better, even on warm nights when the winds are blowing.

Meanwhile, water officials would not be blamed if they turned from anxiously trying to read the skies along with weather forecasts and began a rain dance.

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