MENDOCINO Co, CA, 5/10/23 — One of the most important strategies for wildfire safety in Northern California this year is knowing your neighbors, Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber said in a town hall on wildfire preparation last week.
“When you look at the fatalities on these fires and injuries, many of them, unfortunately, are our seniors that are living in the community — not our teenage kids asleep with their cell phone next to their head,” Weber said. “They didn’t get the alert, they didn’t get the warning, they didn’t wake up. It’s incumbent upon all of us to know your neighbor and make sure that you have a plan as a neighborhood to get out.”
State Senator Mike McGuire held the town hall online, taking questions and moderating to share insights from Weber and Cal Fire Northern Assistant Region Chief Jake Hess. He also highlighted $500 million in new funding coming from the federal government over the next five years, earmarked to aid in wildfire prevention on U.S. Forest Service lands in California.
“Candidly, the alarm couldn’t be louder,” McGuire said. “Our new reality in this era of megafires is here to stay.”
McGuire and these officials answered numerous questions about wildfire preparation in the talk, available on YouTube. But for a closer look at Mendocino County’s fire year, we caught up with Cal Fire Mendocino Unit (MEU) Fire Chief Luke Kendall to learn what we can expect locally this fire season.
“We came out of a pretty good winter with good rain, but good rain brings a bunch of growth for the spring,” he told The Mendocino Voice in a phone conversation. “I think that we’re going to have a pretty good grass crop this year. With light, flashy fuels like that, once they get ripe, then we do have the risk of a decent grass fire that would go up through ladder fuels and get into the brush, once the brush and the timber dry out from the winter rains. I predict that we’re going to have a fire season.”
Currently, Cal Fire MEU is at Level One staffing, meaning that six engines are staffed. By June 5, ten engines will be staffed, including Chamberlain Creek fire crews, Parlin Fork fire crews staffed by incarcerated firefighters, the National Guard crew, the California Conservation Corps crew, and a Black Hawk helicopter crew. By June 19, three battalion chiefs, one prevention officer, 16 engines, four dozers, and air attack methods will all be employed, Kendall explained, bringing Cal Fire MEU to full capacity.
“When we’re at full staffing for the summer, we’re right around 458 employees in the unit, frontline firefighters and support staff,” he said.
In Mendocino County specifically, Kendall wants residents to be diligent when they’re burning debris piles or doing any kind of burning at home. He said the majority of the 17 runaway ignitions in the state responsibility area (SRA) in Mendocino County have come from an intentionally set fire gone out of control.
“We want people to burn safely,” he said. “We want to assure that they have that good clearance around their pile, they have the right water supply, they have the right tools, and they have the right frame of mind where they won’t be pulled away doing something else while their pile is burning.”
Cal Fire has begun conducting more prescribed burns, burning between 60 and 80 acres in Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF). Cal Fire staff also worked at the recent cultural burn facilitated by the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance (TERA) on the land of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians.
“This winter was a challenge for us for burning, because it was so rainy and snowy,” Kendall explained.
While it can help prevent megafires down the line as evidenced by years of indigenous stewardship, prescribed fire is more safely done in the off season, when temperatures are lower; often agencies only decide to go forward with a prescribed burn based on the safety of the weather conditions that very hour. Kendall said crews did a bit more burning in JDSF recently, and hope to burn another 100 acres before year’s end. Cal Fire also hopes to burn around 900 acres at Covelo Road, and about 60 acres at Hopland.
“A lot of these things fall when we have the right conditions and the right time frames to get it done,” he said.
Kendall also encouraged Mendocino County residents to clear defensible space around their homes and minimize flammable plants and brush. The Mendocino County Fire Safe Council offers tutorials online on home-hardening measures.
“The public did a pretty good job last year, trying to be vigilant and thinking about what they’re doing in the summer months when we do have ripe conditions for ignitions to happen,” Kendall said, explaining that overall ignition numbers were down in 2022.
Finally, he encouraged residents to pay attention if the Sheriff’s Office or police departments call for an evacuation.
“That is one thing that we can all work together on and do better on is to heed those warnings,” he said.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.