By Sean Longoria
The Record Searchlight
REDDING, Calif. — Four years after the catastrophic summer of 2008, fire officials say the brush is drying out and another season is already under way.
Technology has advanced and some of the lessons of that year's lightning fires have led to significant changes in policy and communication. But the forests remain loaded with fuel and most plans for addressing the issue in a broader way are still in their early stages.
In 2009, air monitor stations were posted in the Shasta Trinity to gauge air quality during fires. That year as well, the Forest Service changed how it battled another lightning-ignited fire, increasing communication with nearby residents and more aggressively attacking the blaze.
In the past few years, Forest Service officials increased their fuel-reduction and multiagency cooperation plans, while Cal Fire has increased its reliance on local weather experts and local command, representatives for both agencies said.
"2008 was a very impactful and serious fire season. We've done a lot to try to learn from that," said Arlen Craven, fire management officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. "Another one like 2008 would test us much in the same way, I'm sure."
A freak and massive lightning storm that year ignited hundreds of fires around the state one June weekend, catching fire agencies unprepared.
Many criticized the Forest Service in particular. With so many fires burning for so long, the federal agency's reluctance to aggressively extinguish fire raised concerns about the health effects of longterm smoke exposure on residents. There were also issues about how various agencies communicated with one another, as well as forestry practices that some say left the forests vulnerable to huge conflagrations.
The Forest Service, primarily a land-management agency, has increased its efforts to reduce overgrowth that could lead to more intense wildfires, Craven said.
"What we did is we examined all the 2.1 million acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest with the goal of trying to build a more resilient landscape," he said.
Increased communication with other agencies and the public has also been a focus for officials, Craven said. The Forest Service works with the Trinity County Sheriff's Office to provide a liaison for exchanging information between agencies and citizens.
Sierra Pacific Industries, which lost 11,000 acres to 2008's fire just in Shasta County, has also seen new technology lead to better communication, said Dan Tomascheski, the company's vice president of resources.
Sierra Pacific, along with the entire timber industry, meets with Cal Fire once a year to discuss where and when loggers will operate. The private company shares weather data with state officials and encourages Cal Fire inspections of loggers' equipment, Tomascheski said.
The 2008 fires highlighted the need for that communication, he said.
The company has also replanted trees in nearly all of the land burned by the 2008 fires, Tomascheski said. Environmental groups have opposed that practice; Sierra Pacific maintains it's better overall for the forest, which could take hundreds of years to naturally regrow. "If you just let it sit in brush it's a big hazard for the next fire," Tomascheski said. "We can get the forest going; in 10 years those trees are 10-20 feet tall."
Cal Fire has also seen better technology translate into increased ability to predict when and where fires might break out and how bad they could get, said Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman in Sacramento.
Cal Fire has experts in a Redding-based command center to follow weather patterns and make predictions for fire danger, Upton said.
"They're able to model and forecast extreme conditions," she said. "They typically can get very good intel 48 to 72 hours ahead of these events."
Local fire chiefs also have the authority to control resources and staffing for fires, she said. What hasn't changed, Upton said, is Cal Fire's aggressive attack strategy on wildland fires.
"We're always going to err on the side of caution," Upton said, noting large initial dispatches for summertime wildfires.
Doug Wenham, Cal Fire's assistant chief for the Northern Region, said north state stations will open in waves in the coming weeks until they are at full staff in July. In Cal Fire's Shasta-Trinity Unit, there are 12 stations in Shasta County and three in Trinity County.
Five Cal Fire stations are open year-round in Shasta County. A station in Burney and another in Weaverville are opening this week, said Linda Galvan, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.
Tony Roberts, Cal Fire Northern Region deputy chief for training and safety, said the stations open as funding allows and the summer heats up and the wildland vegetation dries out.
While budget cuts have hit services provide by many state departments, Wenham said no Shasta County stations are being closed this year. This year, however, marks the second that Cal Fire has had to reduce the number of firefighters per engine from four to three, he said.
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