Fire Season Hits Critical Stage

Heavy rainfall this winter caused grasses to grow twice as tall,
producing more fuel
Gilroy – As wildfires continue to burn in southern California, Bay Area red flag warnings ended Thursday. But with another bout of high winds expected this weekend – the threat of fire still looms, local fire officials warned.

It was just three years ago this week, that firefighters contained the Croy Road fire – a blaze that charred 3,127 acres of unincorporated Gilroy, destroying 34 homes and costing $8.8 million to extinguish.

“This time of year it’s really dry – it’s almost you just can’t get any drier,” said Chris Morgan, fire specialist of the California Department of Forestry. “It wouldn’t take much to set something off.”

Fire season generally runs from mid-May to the last week of October, however, the Bay Area has a history of late season fires, he said, recalling the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire of 1991 and the 1985 Lexington Reservoir fire.

“This is kind of the end of fire season so to speak. This is kind of a critical time,” Morgan said.

Red flag warnings are declared by the National Weather Service based upon a combination of factors such as strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures, and are an indication that fire conditions are considered critical.

Twice a day South Santa Clara County/CDF fire officials receive a weather forecast from both the Monterey Bay and Sacramento National Weather Services divisions.

According to Rick Hutchinson, CDF assistant chief of the South Bay Division, a larger bout of wind is expected late Saturday into early Sunday with gusts reaching 20 to 30mph.

“We’re not sure if it’s going to be a red flag conditions down to this area … but the fire danger will be elevated,” he said. “By no means can people relax at this point.”

Areas at greater risk are in the East and North Bay regions.

The heavy rainfall late in the season caused grasses to grow twice as tall, creating more fuel.

“There is two-thirds more grass available to burn per acre that what we’d normally see,” Hutchinson said.

In May, CDF officials set up roadside checkpoints in South Valley hills trying to educate homeowners about fire prevention.

“The clearing away (of brush) is not enough,” Hutchinson said.

Current law requires homeowners to remove all brush within 100 feet of their home, however, CDF is considering this a transition year and enforcing the previous 30 foot requirements. Branches must not hang over rooftops or near stovepipes, and roofs clear of leaves or needles. Rocks or anything that could spark if hit by a lawnmower should be removed as well.

About 400 homes in the Gilroy near areas such as Summit Road, Little Uvas, and Redwood Retreat Road were inspected this spring and summer by CDF officials for compliance.

“So far we haven’t written any tickets because everyone is complying,” Morgan said. However, CDF inspectors are not allowed to jump fences or gates.

Many areas of Gilroy have not burned in decades. The Croy Road fire burned quickly because the region had not burned since 1923, Morgan explained.

Two years ago, lightening struck in the hills of Santa Clara, Alameda, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, burning about 50,000 acres in the Mt. Diablo range stopping just east of Gilroy.

“The hills are just sparkling with life. There are a lot of homes – you just can’t see them,” Morgan said. “We don’t have the luxury of working the fire day after day. We cannot afford to have those homes burn.”

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