Blue Cut fire triggers extra caution for potentially active fire season
As firefighters continue battling the Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County, fire officials across the state are bracing for what is expected to be a very busy fire season.
As they do every summer as fire season nears, fire agencies have been monitoring fire-prone areas, mainly the foothill and mountain regions, and working with property owners to ensure brush and dead or dying trees are cleared and defensible space exists surrounding properties.
And while it has been nearly 13 years since prolonged drought and a massive bark beetle infestation fueled the “California Fire Seige of 2003,” drought and bark beetles continue to be among the biggest threats.
The spate of 14 wildfires in 2003 included the Old Fire, which burned across the San Bernardino Mountains for a week, scorching 91,281 acres, destroying more than 1,000 homes and other structures, and killing six people.
“We still have a bark beetle issue. It’s not as bad as in 2003 when the Old Fire hit, but there’s still a problem and it’s continuing to grow due to the drought and overgrowth in the mountains,” said Tracey Martinez, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
Although more than a million dead or diseased pine trees have been cleared in the San Bernardino Mountains since 2002, it has not been enough to hold back the onslaught of bark beetles, insects the size of a grain of rice capable of taking out stands of towering pines.
“Our mountain communities are dense with numerous trees. Our trees are fighting for the water, and when the trees do not have enough water it allows bark beetles to bore into the center of the tree, and that’s what kills it,” Martinez said.
Statewide, drought and bark beetles are responsible for the deaths of 66 million pine trees, said Stephanie Gomes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Vallejo.
In the Sierra Nevada, bark beetles killed 16.8 million pine trees from October 2015 through May, and in the last five years they have killed 32.7 million pine trees, said Gomes, adding that the infestation epicenter is the Sierra, Sequoia and Stanislaus national forests.
Additionally, Forest Service crews have been clearing trees along roads, power lines and trailheads — any areas where fire poses the biggest danger to life and infrastructure, said Gomes.
“We can’t take every tree down, so what we’re doing is a triage approach,” Gomes said.
The San Bernardino County Fire Department has been working with county code enforcement and weed abatement to create fuel breaks and clear brush along evacuation routes in the San Bernardino Mountains, Martinez said.
But while firefighters are focusing mainly on the mountain and foothill communities of Southern California in their prevention efforts, the desert regions, as the Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County illustrates, are also raising alarm.
• Interactive:See how fast the Blue Cut fire grew
“The foothills and mountain communities are our No. 1 priority because they are more vulnerable, but as you can see, we can’t leave our deserts out,” Martinez said.
In Los Angeles County, firefighters have been monitoring the Palmdale and Lancaster areas in the Antelope Valley in addition to the foothill areas vulnerable to fire, said Richard Licon, a fire department inspector.
“Those are the areas with light, flashy fuels. Those areas burn yearly,” Licon said.
Every year, come summer, firefighters begin inspecting the most fire prone areas for dry brush that needs clearing. Notices are sent to homeowners who need to clear brush from their property.
Failure to comply can result in a fine, Licon said.
“We know it’s very costly to do it or have someone come out and do it, but it’s a matter of protecting those individuals who live within our jurisdiction,” he said.
Cal Fire/Riverside County has created a website,www.readyforwildfire.gov, that provides information on fire prevention and safety, including the proper way to clear brush and dead trees from property, creating defensible space and preparing emergency evacuation plans, said Josh Janssen, a battalion chief for the department.
The recent wildfire outbreak in California has alarmed fire officials, so much so that a team of fire scientists has been dispatched to the Cedar fire in the Sequoia National Forest to monitor the fire’s behavior, Gomes said.
The purpose, Gomes said, is to see how differently the fire burns in an area with a large density of dead trees.
• Inside the Fire:What made the Blue Cut fire so relentlessly fast
“This is our first major fire in a heavy tree mortality area,” Gomes said, adding that understanding how fire behaves in areas with a high tree mortality rate can better prepare firefighters to battle similar blazes in the future.
TheCedar firestarted at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday above Lake Isabella and has burned roughly 14,500 acres. It was 5 percent contained midday Saturday.
The Blue Cut fire, which ignited Tuesday in the Cajon Pass and rapidly spread, has destroyed more than 100 homes and more than 200 other structures, while burning more than 37,000 acres. It has left firefighters astonished by its rate of spread and also concerned about fire behavior in the face of the severe drought.
“We’ve never seen this kind of fire behavior, and we’re six weeks ahead of the drying out period,” Martinez said, referring to the fall months of October and November, the peak of fire season. The fall is when the Santa Ana winds kick up and fuel the spread of wildfires. “On the first day of the (Blue Cut) fire, the fire just spread so quickly and was burning so erratic. The firefighters would get ahead on one section, then the fire would spot one to two miles ahead and ignite, and the firefighters just couldn’t get ahead of it. We had to take more precautions, that’s for sure.”
Janssen said he has never seen a fire burn quite like the Blue Cut fire. He said he is not alone.
“You’ve got firefighters with 40 years experience who say they haven’t seen a fire burn like this,” Janssen said.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said a large chunk of Southern California is now above normal for potential wildfire danger.
“We have these tinder dry conditions across the state due to drought, and it only takes one spark — whether it’s a vehicle that pulls over into grass, a campfire, or lightning — that has the potential to create a fire that can grow very quickly and potentially do a lot of damage.”