HEMET, CALIFORNIA — Years of drought have put California at risk of a serious fire season, and firefighters in Hemet, California, are training to be ready for the next big wildfire.
Record high temperatures in May led to serious wildfires near San Diego, months before the fire season is usually under way. This followed nearly three years of drought and the driest year on record in 2013.
The drought left the brush tinder-dry, said Captain Richard Cordova, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE.
“When we have higher temperatures, lower humidity and you throw winds in there, it is just a recipe for extreme fire danger," he said. "And when we see all those three elements come together, CAL FIRE reacts and starts moving equipment around.”
At the firefighter air base in the city of Hemet, a CAL FIRE air tactical unit trains to stay prepared.
Helicopters take crews to the scene of wildfires and tankers drop flame retardant from the air.
Mike Venable, a contract pilot from the company DynCorp International, flies an air tanker for CAL FIRE, sometimes dousing minor fires on local grasslands.
“Everything from that to the challenging 12,000 or 14,000-foot [3,500 or 4,000-meter] peaks, maybe up in the high Sierras or in the forests that surround our base here, so it is a very big variety of flying. Some can be very dangerous, some not so dangerous,” said Venable.
Pilots and firefighters keep their bags packed and aircraft ready.
Daily weather briefings alert them to potential hot spots. Careful tracking of fuel load and weather forecasts help with flight planning.
Battalion Chief Travis Alexander said aircraft are stationed throughout California and can reach a fire in minutes, and are there to back up ground crews.
“Because the aircraft in this agency is just one of many tools. We have the hand crews, the [bull]dozers, engine companies, a variety of other assets," he said. "The air program comes in as a support function.”
At a nearby fire station, crews sort axes, shovels and other field tools, staying ready to fight both urban and wildland blazes.
Air and ground crews work to keep the fires away from homes and other buildings, said Venable.
“If you are able to help somebody on the ground, save a house, keep a firefighter out of a hazardous situation, that is rewarding,” he said.
It is a continuing effort to stay ahead of the fires. CAL FIRE has 5,000 permanent firefighters. It hired 300 recently because of the drought. Several thousand seasonal workers, including inmates from correctional facilities, help out every year.
State officials say their job this year is likely to be a tough one.