There’s no doubt the unseasonably cool spring weather coupled with late rains have kept the temperatures in a pleasant zone but not without cost. The rainy season has created an extra heavy fuel load as the official fire season declared by CAL FIRE — albeit delayed — approaches with an estimated late June or early July target. The date is driven by local and state burning conditions and activity.
The Oakdale Leader approached fire chiefs, Michael Botto from Oakdale City and Lee Winton from Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District with their concerns for the upcoming season and they were candid in their answers as they both agree recent budget cuts have the potential to create a dangerous situation for firefighters. Here are their answers:
What are your concerns going into this season?
Michael Botto (MB): Due to our significant reduction in staffing (a loss of nine full time firefighters collectively between Oakdale Rural and Oakdale City) and our reduction in staffed Engines (collectively, five staffed stations prior to October 2009 — three staffed stations today) our suppression capabilities have been reduced. We cannot provide the same level of service to this community as we once did. Only one of the three engine companies is staffed with three firefighters, the others only have constant staffing of two. It is difficult to meet our suppression and incident response needs with fewer firefighters and staffed engines/stations.
Lee Winton (LW): I agree with Mike’s comments regarding our local capabilities. I also believe that in discussions with other Stanislaus County fire agencies, there are less over-all resources, engines/personnel/etc. to participate in mutual aid to come help us and vice versa. This is a result of fewer volunteers, budget cuts, station closures/brown-outs, etc. We will reach maximum draw-down much quicker than before.
Is there anything about this season that makes it stand apart from past seasons?
MB: With the frequency of rains and sunshine the amount of vegetation growth (weeds, tall grass, and brush) is tremendous. This creates greater challenges to our firefighters for extinguishment, requires additional engine companies and our on-scene commitment time will be extended.
LW: The only thing I would add to Mike’s comments would be the increased danger to our firefighters with the fuel loading that we have out there. We will see significant flame lengths and heat production with even the grass fires this year due to the tremendous “crop” that we have.
With the budget constraints, are there any programs on hold (such as weed abatement) that citizens should be aware during fire season?
MB: We have had several local community members step up and assist our department with our annual weed abatement program. Volunteers Michael Roberson (a retired fire service professional), Paul King, Nathan Larrabee, and Brea DeRespini the city’s volunteer coordinator have committed a great deal of time and effort in identifying our hazards and on Friday, May 28 approximately 120 abatement notices were sent out to property owners. These volunteers have been a great help to our department in meeting our mission of fire prevention and instrumental in our efforts of reducing our communities fire threat.
Any tips/suggestions/warnings to homeowners for the coming season?
MB: Mow your dry grass, weeds, and hazard areas prior to 10 a.m. before the temperature heats up and the humidity drops. Keep fire safe defensible clearances around all structures. Remove debris, trash and combustible material from the property. Keep access roads unobstructed and addresses clearly visible.
LW: Highly recommend that home owners go to work on their defensible space around their homes immediately … don’t wait. The Public Resources Code calls for 100 feet of defensible space around homes in the State Responsibility Area (SRA). Just for information, 60 percent of the land in the Oakdale Fire Protection District is in SRA. If local citizens have any questions about fuel reduction efforts around their home, we will be glad to come out and give them some help or make recommendations to them. A lack of defensible space puts property and firefighter lives at risk.
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