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More Than Just Thinking About Wildland Fires

It’s good to be back after a two-week hiatus. This is a busy time of year for the Laytonville County Water District as we have to close out the fiscal year, prepare and mail out our annual Consumer Confidence Report, and a number of other required filings.

Anway, speaking of water, you can’t fight wildfires without it and recent weather conditions have created higher-than-normal fire potential for the Golden State, especially up here in Northern California.

Both CAL FIRE and the National Interagency Fire Center issued reports this week that contained similar warnings indicating that fuel sources and weather conditions will be more conducive to significant wildland fires than normal for the month of July across a large swath of Northern California.

“The fuel beds in California have become more continuous than what is typically seen,” the Fire Center’s executive summary says. “When the hot, dry, and windy patterns develop during the middle to late summer months, the large fire potential in these areas will elevate.”

These elevated wildfire risks are expected from July through at least October.

Also, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection conducted a risk assessment that found an estimated 11 million residents, or 1 in 4 Californians, live in areas considered to be at “high risk” of a wildfire.

CAL FIRE maintains a risk assessment program that ranks statewide all towns and cities with populations of more than 1,000 that are in “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones.” Statewide more than 75 towns and cities with populations over 1,000 were ranked with at least 90 percent of residents living within these High Fire Hazard Zones.

I checked the assessment for Inland Mendocino County and discovered the following:

Apparently, the safest inland town is Willits with none of its 4,891 citizens or 2,074 housing units at very high risk. In ascending order, other inland towns were ranked as follows:

  1. Ukiah, 16,077 pop., 6,501 housing units, 1 percent at very high risk.
  2. Covelo, 1,255 pp. , 542 housing units, 2 percent at very high risk.
  3. Brooktrails, 3,235 pop., 1,444 housing units, 3 percent at very high risk.
  4. Laytonville, 1,227 pop., 562 housing units, 35 percent at very high risk. 

So my town ends up with the distinction of topping CAL FIRE’s local fire risk rankings.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento Gov. Gavin Newsom recently met with local government emergency officials where he told them to “prepare for the worst” this summer and fall.

“We just can’t take this anymore,” Newsom told the gathering. “The state can’t take 2018 again. Can’t do 2017. … We can’t take it anymore.”

Indeed, the Interagency Fire Center’s report supports the almost inevitable certainty of another dreadful wildfire season by pointing to the major areas of concern being the “dead and down fuel load” and “heavy new brush growth” following a very rainy May and a very dry June.

And, of course, although the report doesn’t mention it, the issue permeating all the bleak wildfire predictions is never before in state history have so many people lived in these high fire risk areas. It’s called the WUI factor, i.e., the Wildland Urban Interface.

In an excellent but little-read 2018 story by AP reporter, Christian Britschgi, he shrinks what is a complex issue into the single most important factor plaguing this new era of monstrous wildfires:

“The issue is compounded further by the polar opposite ways in which California state law and localities treat development. In those cities and counties affected by wildfires, regulators are quick to waive zoning laws and permitting requirements post-disaster. These redevelopments are also exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)—which mandates expensive pre-construction environmental reviews, and which can stall projects for years. In other parts of the state, CEQA is in full effect and restrictive zoning codes and permitting requirements make it incredibly difficult to build more residential housing. This is particularly true in large (and largely wildfire-free) urban centers. In short, California is encouraging people to build where they should not, and discouraging them from building where they should. Incentives are aligned in such a way that it makes more sense for property owners who’ve lost a home to fire to rebuild it in the same spot rather than move to a location where their home would most certainly never be at risk of burning down …Sadly, this means Californians are likely looking at future that includes more unnecessary property destruction and fire-related deaths.”

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:


  1. izzy July 10, 2019

    Speaking from a first-hand perspective, my own patch of forest – bordering MRC timber land – has been piling up the fuel bed for 40+ years, with disastrous potential a mere spark away. The same appears to be true for the larger situation as far as the eye can see. The precociousness of youth and a more friendly climate regime made it seem like a good idea back then. Trump thinks we can just rake all the stuff up; who knows what the confusing state and local regs are supposed to accomplish. The ‘inconvenient truth’ is a lot of development is in places that are destined to burn at some point. Defensible space? Six lanes of freeway didn’t stop it in Santa Rosa.

  2. Ruffled July 12, 2019

    Consider this. Most County roads have yet to be mowed. by the County. The least the County could do is cut the grass and bushes along its roads. At the very least, doing so would make evacuation easier. And the buffer created might slow down a slow moving fire.

    Then there are the dodo birds who plant trees under power lines and PGE which fails to cut all limbs hanging above electric lines, not just the four feet required by the CPUC which has been a regulation since the 1930s.

    And finally we have the ignoramuses who send up fireworks without a care for the danger sparks pose.

    It isn’t just weather conditions. It is the human condition of stupid.

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