'Lucky so far': Researchers, responders remain vigilant, even with less wildfire activity across CA

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Thursday, October 20, 2022
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Researchers and first responders remain vigilant even though less wildfire activity has been reported across California this fall.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- By all accounts, California's 2022 fall fire season has been much quieter than in years past. According to CAL FIRE statistics, to date 366,121 acres have burned this year. Last year, that number was nearly 2.5 million acres.

Craig Clements, with San Jose State's Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center, broke down why and said Wednesday's warm weather actually presented the best chance for a larger wildfire to start.

"It's the warmest day of the last week. The fuels are drier. It's just one of those days -- typical fall," Clements told ABC7 News. "And so this is what we kind of expect. Now, if we had multiple days like this, then we could increase our fire risks."

No doubt, Northern California is familiar. October alone has brought some of the state's deadliest and most destructive wildfires. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire tore through Napa and Sonoma Counties.

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So, what's changed?

"We haven't had the wind events," Clements said. "It's been cooler last week. We have drizzle all across the Bay Area. It was cloudy, and that's kind of uncanny for the fall."

Clements also credited the absence of Diablo Winds -- powerful, dry offshore winds that he said deliver our highest risk of fire danger and widespread wind-driven wildfires.

"The winds can definitely have a big effect on the characteristics of the fire and how quickly it can spread and grow and move," said Chelsea Burkett, CAL FIRE SCU public information officer. "It can definitely be a hindrance on them even just getting to the incident and being safe. Winds can change really quickly. And so it's a safety issue, but it is something that we train for."

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Burkett with CAL FIRE's Santa Clara Unit said while conditions may appear to be calm, California's severe drought and sprawling dry vegetation is a recipe for disaster.

"In the Bay Area specifically, a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, we're not seeing any fire activity.' Well, one of our big goals with CAL FIRE is to keep 95% of all fires to 10 acres or less," she said.

Burkett said fires have happened, and detailed, "It's usually in areas that aren't really affecting populated areas. So we've been really -- we usually have a really aggressive response to mitigate all the fires quickly and effectively and safely as possible."

She said CAL FIRE SCU continues to work on fuel reduction projects and added that there were a couple of them throughout the five counties her unit covers. Burkett said vegetation management plans continue as well.

"We might not be busy right in this moment here and where we're at, but there's other parts of the state that are still having fires. And as a state department, we have responsibility to help each other out," she said, pointing to CAL FIRE's coverage area of Oregon to the Mexico border.

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Back in California, after September's historic heat wave, temperatures cooled off. More recently, out-of-season clouds rolled in.

"We had a deep marine layer over the last couple of weeks over coastal California. And that's reduced the fire risk throughout most of Northern California," Clements added.

Researchers and responders say the unpredictability of the weather proves anything is possible

"Remember that the Campfire 2018 started on Nov. 8," Clements said. "So, we are not out of the woods. But we've been lucky so far that we haven't had a lot of big fires."

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