Quick Take:

With inmate crews that supplement other agencies’ firefighting units cut drastically and extremely dry conditions amid the ongoing drought, a Cal Fire chief sounded a warning about what might be ahead for Santa Cruz County.

Staffing shortages and extremely dry fuels have Santa Cruz County in a “concerning” situation with fire season underway. That’s according to Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin, who warned Tuesday about the elevated potential for more fires this year locally and statewide amid drought conditions.

Fuel moisture levels in the Santa Cruz Mountains remain extremely low — lower than they’ve ever been at some sampling sites — and crews have already had to respond to several fires just this month. That, coupled with a reduction in inmate crews that typically fight blazes, makes for worrisome conditions.

In a presentation on the 2021 fire season outlook for San Mateo County last week, CZU Unit Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox stressed that average fuel moistures across Northern California are “trending extremely low” and that some parts of the region are “going to go into record territory, there’s no doubt about that.”

Several other factors, including COVID-19 and climate change, have created significant obstacles for firefighters this year.

Reduced crews

Inmate crews are massively reduced this year, largely due to COVID-19. Inmates normally fill the important role of “hand crews,” cutting breaks around fires and containing small blazes.

“If we were in a perfect world, and our [inmate] camp were staffed at its maximum staffing, that would be what we call a 100-man camp,” Larkin said. “We would have five inmate crews staffed at 17 people per day.” Currently, there are two crews: one of 15 and one of 13. That is a 57-person deficit.

Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin
Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

While the rest of the CZU unit has successfully scaled up to peak staffing of 325 (a month ahead of schedule because of the dire conditions), the loss of the inmate hand crews is a significant blow.

The hand crews are “a vital resource that we need to help us contain fires,” Larkin said. Without them, other Cal Fire resources will be “tasked more often and for longer periods of time on smaller fires,” he said. “For example, instead of bringing in a hand crew to put a scratch line around a couple-acre fire, our engine companies may be tasked to do that work now because the [hand] crews aren’t available.”

Impacts of climate change: shrinking window for controlled burns, less water for firefighting

In addition to the direct impacts of this year’s drought on fire risk, unseasonably hot and dry weather is creating indirect obstacles to firefighting.

Prescribed burns are typically an important part of fuel management, but with so little rain during the past year it’s been hard to get them done.

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“The fire season’s longer, so our projects get pushed farther into the year, because we didn’t get rain,” Larkin said. “Now we’re in the fire season, we have very short windows to make these [prescribed] burns occur so we can reduce those fuels.”

Typically, crews would plan the burns during months like October — when the fuel was dry enough to burn but they could count on some rain to help keep the blaze under control.

If future years look more like the past one — in which no rain fell in October — it will “definitely change the outlook and the window of opportunity for us,” Larkin said.

The lack of rainfall also affects water supplies, which has led water districts across the county to enact restrictions for businesses and households. But water is also an important firefighting resource.

“For firefighting purposes we try to take the nearest water,” Larkin said. This year, many of the ponds and wells fire crews would normally rely on are depleted. “So we’re going to have to bring water from farther away, from different sources, so it could delay or require us to commit more resources to get that vital [water] to the scene so we can suppress fires.”

Constant vigilance

In the face of these challenges, Larkin’s advice to the public remains the same: “Be cautious out there,” he said. “People just need to be vigilant, if you see smoke, or smell smoke, you should probably call 911.”

Follow Mallory Pickett on: Twitter. Mallory brings deep expertise in environmental issues to Lookout, as well as national reporting experience that she will now apply in her hometown of Santa Cruz. She...