Fire danger looking ‘grim as always’: Cal Fire CZU chief talks prevention efforts as warmer weather looms 

Cal Fire unit chief Nate Armstrong
Nate Armstrong, chief of Cal Fire’s CZU unit.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Northern California and the state as a whole have so far avoided having a fire season similar to the past several years. But despite the encouraging trend, local Cal Fire chief Nate Armstrong told the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors last week that the next couple of months have above-normal fire potential. 

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While healthy rainfall in the Bay Area in November through early December brought fire-weary Californians some hope for relief, and the state has burned at a drastically lower rate so far in 2022, the ensuing dry months are quickly bringing back very valid fire anxieties.

That was the message conveyed to county leadership last week by Nate Armstrong, chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit (CZU), as an area still recovering from the CZU Lightning Complex fire of 2020 that destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County grapples with the ever-present threat of wildfire.

With the amount of dry vegetation high as we move into the typically warmer temperatures of July and August, the fire potential throughout the Santa Cruz region will be above normal. Just because we made it through the heart of fireworks season unscathed, it’s anything but a time for this community to let its guard down.

“It looks grim, as always,” Armstrong told the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

Armstrong, who took over the position in November, added that although some pockets in the county saw average rainfall amounts, it still wasn’t enough to put a dent in the historic drought.

National Weather Service meteorologist David King told Lookout cooler temperatures in the past few weeks kept vegetation slightly more humid, but warmer temperatures are coming to the region.

“Right now conditions are beneficial to suppress fire starts,” he said. “But knowing that July, August and September are on their way, it won’t take long for fuel to dry out and make things a little bit critical.”

The good news, Armstrong says, is how we’ve fared thus far in 2022.

“We’re seeing fewer fires statewide and far fewer acres than the same time frame last year,” said Armstrong.

As of July 1, the state had recorded 22,905 burned acres from 3,598 fires this year. That is a sharp decline from 60,507 burned acres in the same period last year, from 4,125 fires.

The bad news, of course: We’re only halfway through the year, with the heart of fire season upon us. Which is why Armstrong spent much of his time telling the board about several key prevention efforts Cal Fire has added.

Masticators, curtain burners and water tanks

Armstrong emphasized three major components to fire-prevention efforts: the purchase of a new masticator, using Cal Fire’s curtain burners and the placement of new water tanks.

What is a masticator? In fire prevention, it’s a machine used to break down forest vegetation into smaller chunks, which helps to slow forest fires.

Curtain burners are machines that use a high velocity of air to trap smoke and emissions from burned vegetation in order to prevent further fire spread via those burnt residues.

“We’re operating [the masticator] in the county fire area with Cal Fire firefighters during the fuel reduction season,” Armstrong said. “What that’s given us the ability to do is, it clears about a quarter of an acre an hour — with a decent operator.”

Since January, he said, operators have run the masticator for about 100 hours across four separate projects: three in Bonny Doon and one on West Ridge near Loch Lomond.

With an abundance of fuel to burn, Armstrong acquired three curtain burners from Cal Fire’s fleet of 10. He explained to the board how they work.

“It kind of looks like a roll-off dumpster. It introduces a curtain of air that provides a more complete combustion. It also keeps those embers and smoke and everything inside of that vessel while it burns and so we see very little emission — we see very little embers flying out,” he said. “And what that does for us is it gives us the ability to consume a lot of dead and down fuel. And it allows us to burn later into the summer.”

With three burners, Cal Fire crews can more efficiently burn fuels by having operators unloading one, loading a second one and a third one burning fuels.

Each burner can process 20 tons of material per day, Armstrong said.

The other prevention effort: The purchase of three new 10,000-gallon water tanks to be placed in remote areas of Santa Cruz County. The water tanks will be in place specifically for fire protection purposes.

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