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5:05 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

Amid Statewide Drought, California Races To Burn Wildfire Fuel

Originally published on Sun May 4, 2014 5:19 pm

On April 30, the Etiwanda Fire ignited in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California, then quickly grew to more than 2,000 acres before crews were able to contain it.

So far this year, California has already seen much more wildfire activity than normal. As of April 26, the state has recorded more than 1,100 fires, according to the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That's more than double the average of the previous five years. On top of that, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of California is in a state of drought.

"I would say there's a very high likelihood of well-above-normal fires and perhaps a chance of longer-lasting fires, which require more resources in order to fight them," U.S. Forest Service meteorologist Rob Krohn tells NPR's Arun Rath.

Krohn uses the term "fire season" loosely because these days it lasts 12 months, and that means people who live in wildfire country have to prepare.

Getting To A Wildfire's Fuel Before It Does

Southern California's Mount Baldy is on the border of Los Angeles County, just an hour from downtown. The mountain is nestled under the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, and surrounded by the green of pine trees and grasses.

In a normal year, there'd still be snow on the ground. Not having snow raises the risk of fire.

"With the drought that we've had last year into this year, fuels are ready; they're susceptible to burn," says Nathan Judy, a fire information officer for the nearby Angeles National Forest.

"Fuel," in this context, means the grasses, brush and trees that feed wildfires. The Mount Baldy community is trying to mitigate that risk by cutting and gathering those fuels, then burning the material on their terms.

Judy drives his truck to the site of one such controlled burn. Several fire trucks sit by the side of the road and, down below, dozens of firefighters are gathered with hoses and tools around burning piles of brush. The idea is: If there's less fuel available to burn, it should at least slow down a fast-moving wildfire.

Everyone is wearing light protective gear — helmets and yellow or orange fire retardant shirts. They've arranged the fuel into small, smoldering piles, a couple feet high. They use shovels and a hoe with a blade on one side and metal teeth on the other.

Several men hold hoses, and from time to time they spray the piles with water, sending up plumes of smoke and steam. The flames aren't so high, but the heat is intense.

Watching one of the piles is Dalton Hotshots Capt. Kevin Moran. The Dalton crew is specially trained to fight wildfires. Moran says he's been concerned about the dry conditions — but the only thing he can do about it is prepare: "Get my body right, let my family know what's going on. ... That's all we can do."

Last year was terrible for wildland firefighters like Moran. In one incident, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed fighting an Arizona wildfire.

Moran says he tries not to let that type of risk get in the way. "Yes, it's on my mind that those things happen," he says. "But no, it's not going to affect my job and my duty that I have to do."

Putting Everything Into Prevention

On the ridge above the controlled burn, stands James Tomaselli. He's been with the U.S. Forest Service for 20 years and says he's happy they can do some of this prevention work. Conditions on this day are slightly better thanks to some recent rains, but these past few years have been so dry that it hasn't been safe enough to do a controlled burn.

"These piles have been here for three years, and we've been trying to burn them," Tomaselli says. "Ideally, you cut them that year and you burn them the same year that you make them."

The fire crews are doing this work for a simple reason: to help protect the several hundred people who live and work in Mount Baldy. Missy Ellingson is one of those people. She's owned the Mount Baldy Lodge for 35 years. The lodge has a restaurant and a bar, and rents out cabins to skiers and national forest visitors. But it's been tough.

"When you have a business in Southern California," Ellingson says, "it's edgy. ... There was no ski season. We never opened for skiing. We opened for tubing a little bit, but it sucked."

And because of the increased risk of fires this year, Ellingson says they decided to buy fire-blocking gel. She goes behind the bar and comes back with a plastic gallon jug of pink liquid.

"You basically hook it up to a system that propels it," she says, like an air compressor, which can then spray the fire retardant on the sides of a building and maybe keep it from igniting.

Ellingson bought three cases of the stuff for $1,100. "It's cheaper than losing your place," she says. "You know, this is our life, this is our restaurant, where we live. You know, this is everything we have."

Ellingson has to put everything into prevention because, should the lodge burn down, she wouldn't be able to rebuild. And, she says, "Anyone [in Mount Baldy] with a brain" is doing the same thing — taking steps to prepare for wildfires. Because, even in a region used to wildfires, this year appears poised to be especially destructive.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here in California, it is dry. According to the U.S. drought monitor, the entire state is in a state of drought. We're talking about an area bigger than Germany. And in a state already known for wildfires, the dry conditions are ripe for fast-growing destructive blazes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Take a look behind me. You can see the faint glow of the fire. Just to my left is the area where all of the emergency vehicles have come back to get these flames knocked down. Take a look...

RATH: This past week, a fire started near Rancho Cucamonga, California and quickly grew to more than 2,000 acres. The air in the town was thick with smoke. Using fire engines and water-dropping helicopters, firefighters managed to contain the blaze. But it's a sign of the tough conditions here.

ROB KROHN: It is going to be unfortunately an above average year in terms of large fire potential due to the ongoing drought.

RATH: That's Rob Krohn. He's a fire weather meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

KROHN: I would say there's a very high likelihood of well above normal fires and perhaps a chance of longer-lasting fires which require more resources in order to fight them.

RATH: When we spoke, Krohn used the phrase, quote-unquote, "fire season" because these days fire season lasts 12 months a year. And that means people who live in wildfire country have to prepare.

NATHAN JUDY FIRE INFORMATION OFFICER, ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST: Where we're at is Mount Baldy.

RATH: This is Nathan Judy. He's the fire information officer for the Angeles National Forest. Recently, Nathan was showing me around the community of Mount Baldy. If you were to wake up on Mount Baldy, you'd be shocked to find out it's on the border of L.A. County, just an hour from downtown. The community is nestled under the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains and surrounded by the green of pine trees and grasses. The thing is, in a normal year, Nathan told me, we should be seeing white.

Is it less snow than we would see typically this time of year?

FOREST: Oh yeah, typically at this time of year you'd have snow where we are right now.

RATH: That means more risk of fire.

FOREST: With the drought that we've had last year into this year, fuels are ready. They're susceptible to burn.

RATH: Fuels in this context means grasses, brush, the trees that feed wildfires. And the reason we came to Mount Baldy was to see how the community is trying to mitigate that risk by cutting and gathering those fuels and burning them on their terms. Nathan drives us in his truck to the site of a controlled burn.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOORS CLOSING)

RATH: Several fire trucks sit by the side of the road and down below dozens of fire fighters are gathered with hoses and tools around burning piles of brush. The idea is if there's less fuel available to burn, it should at least slow down a fast-moving wildfire. Everyone is wearing light protective gear - helmets, orange or yellow fire-retardant shirts. Before we can get close to the fires, he offers us some gear too.

FOREST: Extra large?

RATH: And we climb down through the brush and smoke.

FOREST: Walk over here on the outside of the hose line where these guys are working a pile.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Keep moving those timbers to the middle. Ooow. Yeah, that's hot, huh?

RATH: Brush and grass. They've arranged those fuels in small smoldering piles a couple of feet high.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOLS SCRAPING)

FOREST: You can hear their tools in the ground scraping the dirt, moving that wood around, make sure it burns.

RATH: They use shovels and a tool called a McCleod. It's like a hoe with a blade on one side and metal teeth on the other. Several men hold hoses and from time to time they spray the piles with water, sending up plumes of smoke and steam. The flames aren't so high, but the heat is intense. I found it hard to stand close.

Kevin Moran is watching one of those piles. He's a captain with the Dalton Hotshots, a crew who's specially trained to fight wildfires. He says he's been concerned about the dry conditions but the only thing he can do himself is prepare.

CAPTAIN KEVIN MORAN: Get my body right, let my family know what's going on. And they already know what to expect in the time that I've been doing it. And just get prepared. That's all we can do.

RATH: 2013 was a terrible year for wildland firefighters like Kevin. In one incident, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed fighting a wildfire in Arizona. We asked Kevin if that type of risk is on his mind this year.

MORAN: Yes and no. Yes, it's on my mind that those things happen but no, it's not going to affect my job and my duty that I have to do.

RATH: Back on the road on the ridge above all the action, James Tomaselli stands watching. He's been with the forest service for 20 years and he says he's happy they can do some of this prevention work. Because of some recent rains, the conditions today are slightly better but it has been so dry these past few years that it just hasn't been safe enough to do a controlled burn.

JAMES TOMASELLI: These piles have been here for three years and we've been trying to burn them. Ideally you cut them that year and you burn them the same year that you make them. And it's been three years before we've been able to get these piles burned. And there's a lot more out there like that.

RATH: The fire crews are doing this work for a simple reason - to help protect the several hundred people who live and work in Mount Baldy. Nathan Judy takes us to the Mount Baldy Lodge. Missy Ellingson has owned the lodge for 35 years. They have a restaurant, a bar and rent out cabins to people visiting the national forest where they are skiing in the mountains. This season has been tough.

MISSY ELLINGSON: When you have a business in Southern California it's edgy, you know.

RATH: Was there basically no ski season this year?

ELLINGSON: There was no ski season. We never opened for skiing. We opened for tubing a little bit but it sucked.

RATH: Add to that the increased risk of fires. So this year Missy says they decided to buy something called barricade gel.

ELLINGSON: Want to see a bottle of it?

RATH: Sure. She goes behind the bar and comes back with a plastic gallon jug of a pink liquid.

ELLINGSON: You basically hook it up to a system that propels it.

RATH: Like an air compressor which can then spray the fire retardant on the sides of a building and maybe keep the building from igniting.

Do you have a sense of how much you've spent on all these prevention measures and protection measures?

ELLINGSON: Well, three cases of this was $1100. I can tell you that. Well, it's cheaper than losing your place. You know, this is our life. This is our restaurant, where we live. You know, this is everything we have.

RATH: Missy Ellingson tells me she has to put everything into prevention because should the lodge burn down, she wouldn't be able to rebuild. And she says anyone on Mount Baldy with a brain is doing the same thing, taking steps to prepare for wildfires. Because even in a region used to wildfires, this year appears poised to be especially destructive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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