Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/ Town Crier
With wildfire season looming, firefighters at the El Monte Fire Station in Los Altos Hills participate in annual training exercises.
Wildfire season historically begins in July, but firefighters at the El Monte Fire Station in Los Altos Hills began patrolling the community with a brush engine last week after Santa Clara County warned of the dangers posed by the dry winter and spring.
“The last three months have been really dry,” said Battalion Chief Jim Young of the Santa Clara County Fire Department.
The traditionally rainy season has yielded only 2.28 inches of precipitation in Los Altos since January. With 7.5 inches less than the average amount of rainfall for the period, Young noted that vegetation was unable to recover and build a reserve of moisture to sustain vitality through the summer months.
“(The plants) have less moisture – they’re going to die earlier and they’re more vulnerable to fire,” he said, adding that dry brush frequently serves as “ladder fuel” that allows fire to climb from the ground to trees.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has recorded more than 1,100 wildfires in 2013 – 500 more than the average. Young said that although there have been no fires in Los Altos Hills yet this year, local firefighters are refreshing their skills by reviewing high-level wildfire tactics and strategies during annual training exercises.
The National Interagency Coordination Center’s Predictive Services Program reported that Northern California is experiencing moderate drought conditions and that “it is likely that much of the area will develop above-normal significant wildland fire potential” in June and July. If the forecast holds true, Young predicted that wildfire season could last at least two months longer than usual.
Young said Santa Clara County owns seven rigs equipped with specialty hoses, gear and other equipment for extinguishing brush fires. As wildfire risk is significant in Los Altos Hills, the El Monte Fire Station will deploy a brush engine on patrol in the area during the peak fire hours of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. all season.
“Once a fire gets going, it really spreads quickly,” said Young, highlighting the importance of brush engines spending time in the field near potential fire locations. “These guys are right there (in the community) and able to get a line out for putting the fire out.”
Fire officials advised Los Altos Hills residents to protect their properties by removing dead tree limbs and clearing debris, dead plants and other potential fuels to create a defensible space of at least 100 feet around their homes.
“When you have defensible space, those ladder fuels have been removed,” Young adds. “It allows us time to get in with the suppression equipment.”
As an additional safeguard, CAL FIRE declared a burn ban and suspension of open burning in Santa Clara County April 29. Although CAL FIRE will oversee and regulate all agricultural, vegetation management and industrial burning, Young said private homeowners with backyard fire pits face no restrictions but should nonetheless exercise caution.
“Generally,” he said, “the rule is that if it’s used for cooking or warming, it would be allowed, given that it was attended, near a water source and surrounded by a defensible zone.”
For more information, visit calfire.ca.gov/index.php.