While the recent rains have been a happy sight for first responders who’ve dealt with a long and arduous fire season fueled by drought, CalFire likely won’t officially declare an end to the 2021 fire season. The state agency generally considers fire season to be a year round event and, unlike small jurisdictional fire departments, has statewide drought conditions and varying rain totals to consider.
“At this point, CalFire really views the wildfire threat as a year-round problem. Fire season now is a year-round threat,” said Ben Nicholls, the division chief of Sonoma County operations for the CalFire Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit.
According to Nicholls, on Nov. 8 prior to the small rain event, a fire in Penngrove burned about half an acre after escaping from a controlled burn pile on a nearby property.
Still, Nicholls said the rain provides much needed relief from the fire activity that was seen during the bone-dry summer months.
The Nov. 8 storm brought about one inch of rain to Healdsburg and Windsor while Cloverdale and Santa Rosa received nearly an inch, according to the Western Weather Group’s daily data dashboard.
“The rain that we have received has been wonderful and is definitely helping with our wildfire problem here in the county, but we are still in a drought deficit,” Nicholls said.
Toward the end of October following the atmospheric river that soaked the county, the Santa Rosa Fire Department declared an end to the fire season on Nov. 1 — but only for the City of Santa Rosa.
“While conditions around the region and state currently vary, locally, Santa Rosa received roughly 11 inches of rain in the month of October and the threat of significant fires in the community has been minimized,” the department said in a statement.
Nicholls said because CalFire is a statewide fire department, they have to consider fuel conditions and fire conditions across the state, which is one of the reasons why they don’t make an end of fire season declaration.
He said in the last week alone there have been 42 wildland fires across the state, meriting the need to continue to maintain their current level of seasonal firefighting resources.
Although now that the ground is a bit more saturated, he said it can sometimes be more difficult for fires to get going.
“It definitely makes fires more difficult to get going, but while you’ve got the green grass coming up from underneath, there’s still the standing dead grass from the year. If we were to experience another wind event or on a windy day the fire in a burn pile can ignite that dead grass and burn through the tops of the dead grass just as quick as it would during the peak of fire season,” Nicholls said. “At this point with the current fuel conditions we have we’re not concerned about per se a Kincade-type fire event, but if we had a significant offshore wind event we could have a fire that is several hundred acres in size with the current conditions that we have.”
In terms of the threat of debris flows and flooding in burn scar areas, Nicholls said that’s a little less of a concern now for the 2020 scar areas.
“With the cyclone bomb that we experienced at the end of October and then another couple inches and subsequent storms, we’re looking much better now than we were in the middle of October, because those areas have been exposed to some significant rainfall totals,” he said.
Burn pile permitting resumes
On Oct. 26, the CalFire Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit lifted the burn permit suspension for Sonoma, Solano, Yolo, Lake, Napa and Colusa counties.
According to the CalFire press release, “Cooler temperatures, high humidity and the chance of winter weather have helped to begin to diminish the threat of wildfires,” allowing the suspension to be lifted.
Those who possess valid burn permits can resume burning on permissible days. Residents who don’t have a burn permit must acquire one through CalFire and must verify that it is a permissible burn day prior to conducting the burn. To verify, those in Northern Sonoma County must contact the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District.
For those wishing to conduct a burn in Southern Sonoma County or in Napa County, contact the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“Because we are not out of fire season, we do still require a CalFire burn permit. Depending on the size of the burn, if it is less than a 4x4-foot pile they go online to our webpage, watch an online video and print out a CalFire burn permit,” Nicholls explained. “Individuals looking to burn larger than 4x4 piles or utilizing prescribed fire in a broadcast burn, those require an actual site inspection from CalFire before a permit is issued to make sure they have the appropriate resources on hand and control lines in place prior to igniting that fire so we don’t put the community or neighbors at risk.”
A broadcast burn is using drip torches or flares to ignite the forest floor and let that fire burn in a controlled fashion.
For burn piles, only dry, natural vegetation may be burned. The burning of trash, painted wood or other debris is not permitted and burn piles should have a 10 foot diameter around them down to the bare soil. A shovel and water sources should be nearby and an adult is required to be in attendance of the fire at all times.
Nicholls said smoke may be visible from time to time around the county as people conduct burn piles.
“If an individual sees smoke and is concerned that it might not be a controlled burn they can 9-1-1 and the RedCom dispatcher will be able to confirm or deny, depending on the location, if there is a registered burn,” he said.
He added that this Sunday, Nov. 14, there’s a scheduled 20-acre prescribed burn near Rio Lindo on the other side of the river that may put up a lot of smoke.
“We have a unique opportunity with the reduction in fires that we’re experiencing here in the county to utilize our seasonal employees to do some of that proactive fuels work with state parks, and some of our other partners here in the county, to reduce that fuel load with what we call ‘good fire,’” Nicholls said. “And recently it has been pile burning for state parks along some strategically important fuel breaks, but we also have some prescribed burns scheduled here in the next several weeks if we get a break in the rain that allows fuels to dry out so we can use that broadcast fire.”