CAL FIRE gears up for fire season

ST. HELENA, Calif.

With so much rain this year, firefighters are concerned about an overabundance of vegetation, also known as fuel for wildland fires. On the upside, the rain continued so late into the spring, that even on a ridiculously hot and dry day, like it was Tuesday, vegetation is still very green, pushing the likelihood of a big wildfire to July and beyond.

CAL FIRE Assistant Chief Dave Shew says all of the state's 13 air attack bases and nine helicopter attack bases will be open by July 1. Peak firefighter staffing is scheduled to begin three days later on the July Fourth holiday.

"The fire season doesn't fall nice and neatly in the budget cycle," said Shew.

Shew says the official start of fire season is always a moving target, slave to Mother Nature's whims. When this year's season begins next month, engines will be staffed with three firefighters instead of last year's four. That one extra firefighter was thanks to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order. Current Gov. Jerry Brown has decided against it because of budget problems.

"The executive order gave us augmented staffing of one additional person," said Shew. "Our normal budget includes three personnel, so that is our maximum staffing."

Local budget cuts and firefighter layoffs also mean CAL FIRE might not be able to rely on as much mutual aid as in the past.

"That could potentially be a problem," said Shew. "CalEMA (California Emergency Management Agency), what used to be OES (Office of Emergency Services), has gone through an analysis statewide and they're predicting there could be a reduction in the number of departments who are able to send engines to large fires."

Shew says the Bay Area's late rains and the resulting delayed fire season have saved the state money; about 2,000 seasonal firefighters are hired for the summer, and if need be, off-duty staff can also be brought in.

Fire officials stress the importance of reminding homeowners to create a defensible space around the home. They recommend not using your mower in the middle of a hot day, but instead sticking to the cool early morning or late evening hours.

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