Dry conditions, lightning strikes sustain fire concerns

August 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The possibility of lightning is sparking fire fears in many parts of the Bay Area as a Red Flag Warning remains in effect in the North Bay Hills until 3 a.m. Thursday.

Already this year, CAL FIRE has responded 4,500 times and 92,000 acres have burned. Last year, there were only 3,300 fires and 43,000 acres burned. So, twice as many acres have burned and the season is not over yet.

In California, they might as well call all the dry grass "Red Flag grass." It's hot, dry, primed, and vulnerable to ignition from any source, even casual hikers.

"It's like this every summer. It's a fragile environment," one hiker told ABC7 News Tuesday.

So, when residents see dry lightning, like the kind seen above Tilden Park in Berkeley Monday night, fireman like Batt. Chief Paul Crimmins of San Rafael do not sleep or rest particularly well. "There's potential for multiple dry lightning strikes all over Marin County, all over the North Bay," he said.

Multiple dry lightning strikes are the equivalent of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of matches tossed into brush. If they land in dry brush and ignite flames, a hillside can explode in minutes taking homes and property. If you've ever wondered why your local fire department asks for 100 feet of defensible space, it's for days like this.

"All over the state is dangerous stuff. To get multiple fires, whether they start small or not, takes a lot of resources just to get to them and put them out," Crimmins said.

So while the light show some Bay Area residents saw Monday night was spectacular, it was also dangerous. If such a strike lands in the North Bay during this time, it could be one element in a perfect storm waiting to happen, one that bolts from the sky and burns through the grass. If predictions hold true, Tuesday will be a night for vigilance.

Marin group needs money to rid fire hazard

In Marin County, there is a concern that eucalyptus trees could be dangerous during fire season. However, San Rafael might have to return a quarter million dollars for a project to chop down flammable trees.

"And these hills are really, really dry," said San Rafael resident Jose Ortiz.

The hill are also dotted with highly flammable eucalyptus trees that Marin County wants to get rid of.

"They go up so quickly. They just explode and it's pretty scary," said Ortiz.

The non-profit group, FIRESafe Marin won a $220,000 state grant to remove eucalyptus trees on Puerto Suello Hill along Highway 101 next to the Marin Civic Center.

"The nature of the tree has a very shallow root system, so it falls easy. You add fire to that and you've got falling trees, large ember showers that result from the burning of those trees," said Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber.

But now the money to remove the trees is in jeopardy because the Marin group has to come up with the $200,000 first before the state will reimburse them and they don't have the upfront cash yet.

"That's too bad. Hopefully they'll be able to find another way, another source to do it because it's really important because last night we had lightning strikes, right?" said Ortiz.

Other people who live nearby think the trees are beautiful and want them to stay.

"We have such a low rate of fires in Marin, there's a lot of other things I'd rather see the money used for. We've got a lot of poor people, poor health care," said San Rafael resident Arthur Ammann.

If Marin gets the money, the plan is to replace the eucalyptus trees with more than 200 oak saplings. The deadline is in two weeks.


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