The Coast News Group
Cal Fire firefighters battle a fire in Valley Center in November 2013. Photo by Anthony Carrasco, courtesy of Cal Fire
Cal Fire firefighters battle a fire in Valley Center in November 2013. Photo by Anthony Carrasco, courtesy of Cal Fire

Cal Fire bolsters staff to handle fire danger from area drought

REGION — The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is maintaining a greater number of on duty firefighters statewide, including in San Diego County, to handle the unusually high fire danger accompanying the state’s drought conditions this winter.

The state has experienced record low rainfall over the past year and weather forecasts reveal continuing dry weather. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an emergency drought declaration.

Recently, San Diego County has sustained Santa Ana winds, prompting red flag warnings, and low humidity rather than burgeoning rainfall.

Normally during this time of year, fire risks reduce with the rain. But current weather conditions have extended “fire season” indefinitely as vegetation becomes drier and more susceptible to catching fire.

Cal Fire has already responded to 154 wildfires, which burned 598 acres, from Jan. 1 through Jan. 11. On average during this time of year, Cal Fire responds to 26 fires. Last year during this same time, Cal Fire did not respond to any fires.

And there is no sign of letting up.

“Fire danger is going to remain much higher than normal for this time of year,” said Cal Fire spokesperson Daniel Berlant. “We’re experiencing conditions that we would normally see in August.”

Cal Fire normally maintains seasonal firefighters for nine months during each year through the spring, summer and fall when fire incidents are more frequent. Typically, Cal Fire releases its seasonal personnel in Southern California by late December, he explained.

Yet the extended fire season has caused Cal Fire to retain its seasonal staff for the foreseeable future.

Cal Fire in San Diego County maintains 301 permanent firefighters year round, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler. It is currently retaining its 91 seasonal firefighters beyond their normal nine-month employment to handle the greater fire incidents.

San Diego Cal Fire is also utilizing extra shifts from the 253 inmate firefighters serving time in local conservation camps.

Brown’s drought declaration has enabled Cal Fire to use state emergency funds to pay for the additional firefighting staff, said Berlant. But those limited resources are in danger of running out before the fiscal year is over.

Cal Fire originally had access to $172 million in emergency funds at the start of the fiscal year on July 1, 2013. Those funds have been used since then to support enhanced fire protection and only $20 million in emergency funds remains to support Cal Fire through this June.

Cal Fire officials are seeking out county and federal financial resources to supplement its additional personnel, though financing for San Diego County specifically remains uncertain.

For now, Cal Fire does not know when it will end its use of seasonal firefighters, if at all, for this year.

“We will continue to staff our fire crews until our fire risk reduces, which may not be until next winter,” said Berlant.