SANTA CRUZ – Late season rain showers have softened the blow of recent county fire incidents, but a dangerous season still lies ahead.
In a presentation to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Santa Cruz County and Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit Fire Chief Nate Armstrong provided an update on the state of county fire services and the outlook for 2022.
“It looks grim as always, I’m sure you guys have gotten used to that,” Armstrong told the board. “While we did get those brief spouts of heavy rain, it’s not enough to crush the long-term drought and we’re seeing that in our fuels right now.”
Armstrong explained that early season bouts of rain activity in the winter had him feeling optimistic, but the extended dry spell from January through March has county vegetation fuel levels at or near historic highs.
Statewide and local predictive services indicate that monsoonal moisture systems, which can bring both wet and dry lightning strikes, could continue through July, according to Armstrong. He said systems of this variety recently contributed to fire events in neighboring regions and are similar to what ignited the CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020.
But the models are also suggesting that the region is likely to benefit from fewer extended heatwaves this summer and more coastal fog, factors that were less ideal in 2020.
“We had a week long, terrible heatwave right before that dry lightning came through (in 2020), really prepping the fuels,” Armstrong said. “We should see a lot fewer of those, according to the models.”
Cal Fire, is tasked with providing services to unincorporated regions that aren’t serviced by other fire protection agencies. Roughly 50% of the total county population resides in unincorporated regions, according to County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios. There are five county volunteer stations located in South Skyline, Bonny Doon, Loma Prieta, Davenport and Corralitos, in addition to full time staff.
Several mobile equipment orders are expected this summer, according to Armstrong, including two type one fire engines, two type three engines and two rescue vehicles. Armstrong said that type one engines are slightly larger and can pump water at a faster rate than type three, but both are suited for rural responses.
The usage of a masticator machine, which breaks down low level brush that adds fuel to wildfires, was also highlighted in the presentation. Armstrong said the machine can clear about a quarter of an acre per hour and it has been used for about 100 total hours for projects in Bonny Doon and Loch Lomond.
Fire crews across the county are suffering from a shortage of volunteer firefighters, according to Armstrong. Cal Fire CZU currently has 71 volunteers with a long-term goal of maintaining 100, but crews across the state are experiencing minimal interest for once competitive roles.
“A lot of us, when we started 20 plus years ago, had to apply with 10,000 other people for two jobs and we’re seeing the opposite of that now,” Armstrong said. “It’s a statewide problem that we’re all looking at right now.”
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty suggested possible partnerships with local school districts could aid in pipeline development. “Let people know early that there’s an opportunity here to serve their community and make a good living by staying in the community and serving with Cal Fire,” he said.
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig also inquired about how new evacuation routes can be established within unincorporated areas of the county. Armstrong acknowledged the need and pointed to funding challenges and complications resulting from residents that will not grant passage through their property as obstacles to the effort.
According to a Cal Fire report on June 22, the total number of statewide fires year to date was 2,972, compared to 3,472 the year before. Still, Armstrong cautioned continued vigilance in an environment that remains dire.
“The winter seems to have … disappeared for us,” he said. “We used to see a five to six month fire season in the north end of the state and we’re now seeing a nine to 10 month fire season. We’ve now coined the term ‘fire year’ and we just have a peak fire season.”
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