San Diego fire chief: Prepare now for wildfires
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
With drier-than-normal weather conditions in the region, San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar is reminding residents to prepare their properties and themselves now for wildfire and evacuation.
“Help us help you,” Mainar said. “We can’t do it alone.”
According to Mainar, a lack of rain last winter means vegetation dryness this July is at levels typically seen in September. Consequently, there have been large wildfires in Northern California and other states, such as Colorado, this summer. From June to mid-July there were five vegetation fires in Rancho Bernardo.
“During that same time in the state we’ve seen twice as many wildfires as normal and they have burned twice as much acreage,” he said.
“We are concerned,” Mainar said. “(Fire service agencies) are always prepared for fire … but need the help of the community.”
The biggest help, he said, is locals making sure their homes are defensible so firefighters can access properties safely.
“Within 100 feet we need them to thin their brush and remove combustibles,” he said. “Tree limbs should be at least 10 feet from chimneys and there should be small mesh on their attic vents.”
He also said on hot dry days or when there is a fire in the area, locals need to pay attention to alerts from fire and police officials.
“When we tell you to leave (do so),” Mainar said. “Be prepared by taking the necessary steps now to gather documents and medications.”
If ordered to evacuate, he said residents can also help firefighters by leaving gates unlocked so backyards can be easily accessed, removing combustible lawn furniture from near homes or if they have plastic furniture, he suggests putting it in a swimming pool if available.
Despite City of San Diego budget constraints, Mainar said the fire department has full staffing. State budget shortfalls have impacted other agencies, such as Cal Fire, he added. While considered “full” in terms of engines in service, he said there are now three firefighters on each Cal Fire engine instead of four.
Since the 2003 and 2007 wildfires that swept through portions of San Diego County — including destroying hundreds of homes in Rancho Bernardo and Poway — Mainar said there is better coordination between local, state, federal and military resources to fight fires. He also said San Diego Gas & Electric has taken steps to prevent fires started by electrical lines, but if winds are strong enough, power line-ignited fires could occur.
Other causes he mentioned were people tossing cigarette butts out of vehicle windows, which if conditions are right — such as low humidity — could start a grass fire on the side of roadways, and children experimenting with fire or fireworks.
Mainar said San Diego Fire-Rescue has “done a good job getting information out” about fire prevention and preparation. He recommends locals look at websites for guidance and tips, including his department’s at www.sandiego.gov/fire/safety/tips/index.shtml. “I hope the public has not turned a deaf ear,” he said.
While fire agencies and locals are doing what they can, Mainar said if a wildfire reaches the scale of a natural disaster, firefighters are limited in what they can do.
That is where Mother Nature comes into play. According to Roger Pierce, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Rancho Bernardo, last winter was very dry, so vegetation moisture is low months earlier than normal.
“We live in a desert, so a very little amount of water makes a difference,” Pierce said. For example, he said Anza-Borrego Desert State Park received 3.66 inches of rain when normal is just over 6 inches.
Rainy season typically does not start until October or November. Any rain in the North Inland area until then is not likely to amount to much or help vegetation moisture, he said.
“The current outlook is that we will see above normal temperatures … in July, August and September,” Pierce said. “I am much less confident (about the forecast) for September, October and November, but the indication is that temperatures will be above average.”
Regarding Santa Ana winds that were a key component of the 2007 wildfires, Pierce said it is too early to predict their strength this fall, but with the huge drought in the Plains and Southern United States, that could lead to a high pressure system migrating west that makes Santa Ana winds more likely.
“No doubt they are a key factor (with wildfires) — their strength and the temperature,” Pierce said. “We’re expecting slightly above average temperatures, which increases the chance of hot, dry winds.”
The Inland Corridor’s relative humidity — key to vegetation moisture — is determined by how far the marine layer comes inland from the coast, he said.
Pierce said the county could have isolated thunderstorms during the next couple of months and there could be some dry lightning that could spark wildfires, but the latter does not occur frequently in the region.
As for why there has been low precipitation, Pierce said last winter there was a La Niña, which meant less ocean moisture in the air and consequently fewer rainstorms on land.
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