Between 2015 and 2019 Lake County had 8 fire emergencies declared with thousands of properties and lives impacted. Over 60% of the county burned during that period but the main towns and cities were protected by the statewide major fire response consisting of aircraft and engine crews totaling thousands of staff from several states. One fire complex (River and Ranch) was the largest in state history. The fall out because of fire insurance claims is in dropped insurance coverages and increased rates throughout the county.
The popular phrase is “this is the new normal,” but it didn’t have to be that way. For tens of thousands of years, the tribal cultures lived on the land and thrived through the use of fire rather than by fighting it. Burning was done as often as it was necessary to keep the brush in check and productively producing berries. Grasses were a different species back then but burned as often as they would hold a fire. Fire was run through the understory of forests to allow for passage and better visibility to detect danger.
A productive landscape for wildlife resulted and an open viewshed easy to walk through rather than hard to pass choked hillslopes and forests. One additional advantage was the control of large hot-burning tree species such as the California Foothill Pine often called the Grey Pine (Pinus sabiniana), which can throw copious embers particularly if they are large and especially in high wind, dry conditions.
With today’s overgrown vegetation comes very large hot fires that are hard to contain. The power company has noted the changing extreme conditions that lead to high risk for their power lines and shut them down in what the meteorologists call red flag days. This lack of power can keep well pumps from resupplying water tanks and gives fire suppression by first responder’s even higher importance. Today’s fires must be kept small.
Unfortunately, our first responders are going through change as well. The fire brigades don’t get the volunteers they once did so permanent staff must be hired to staff stations 24/7. Equipment is old and stations need to modernize and the Northshore District along highway 20 still relies on an outdated funding base (property assessment) while other districts are updating.
In order to provide the fast response needed to keep fires from getting out of control, perform emergency ambulance and medical aide duties, our first responders need an overhaul and a new funding base. To turn this around we can do two things; ensure an adequate funding base for the first responders and secondly, cut the vegetation back from houses and harden them against ember cast. With a faster response to the extreme conditions threatening every one of us, perhaps the insurance companies will take note.
Let’s not sit back and be victims when we can take action to meet the “new normal” head-on while the state and federal foresters determine the best way to get fire back into the forest. Just the way it was for thousands of years.