Recent rains offer the possibility of using ‘fire to fight fire’ with prescribed burns in the backcountry


Jason Kraling dug his fingers deep into the spongy soil of Mount Laguna on Saturday and pulled out a handful of fallen leaves, brittle pine needles, splinters and rich brown soil.

“Look how wet it is,” said Kraling, a US Forest Service fire battalion chief. “We got respite from the drought last summer. Now is the right time for prescribed burns.

Years of sporadic drought had left San Diego County so parched that firefighters believed the area would explode with wildfires as soon as the Santa Ana winds returned in the fall.

Kraling Forest Service colleague Talbot Hayes told the Union-Tribune in August: “We are ready to burn. Things could go wrong.

The dry Santa Anas arrived at the right time. But a big storm hit the county in mid-October. And that was followed by a long series of storms in December that pushed the seasonal precipitation to 8.55 inches on Mount Laguna and nearly double on Mount Palomar.

Mount Laguna, which is part of the Descanso District of the Cleveland National Forest, also received snow and rain that turned to ice.

Snow and ice have added weight to the branches of pines, oaks and cedars which give the mountain much of its beauty. Some of the branches have broken off and fallen to the forest floor, where they will die, becoming a potential fire hazard.

Firefighters Diego Calderon, right, and Vince Torcellini of the US Forest Service on Saturday inspect an area where their team had carried out multiple prescribed burns on Mount Laguna the day before.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County weather continues to be cool; San Diego has not hit 70 degrees since Nov. 29. That cold and the kind of mixed clouds hovering over the county on Saturday are slowing evaporation.

And the rain could reach the mountain on Monday and Tuesday.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the forest fire danger subsided. It was listed as “weak” on Saturday on Mount Laguna.

The Forest Service takes this opportunity to collect dead and dying trees and vegetation and place them in piles that are reduced to ashes in carefully controlled prescribed burns.

Firefighters also perform what are called broadcast burns, which are prescribed burns that occur over a more open area, under strict controls.

The Forest Service has cleared and cleared about 200 acres since last month in the Descanso district. Kraling said the agency hopes to do the same on an additional 800 to 900 acres by the end of April, when the area generally becomes very dry.

The inconstancy of nature and the limits of science make it impossible to know whether they will achieve this goal.

The National Weather Service has a good track record of estimating how much rain will fall when a storm approaches land. But science hasn’t reached the point where forecasters can reliably tell how much rain will fall in specific areas weeks in advance.

Even short-term forecasting can be difficult. The Weather Service told residents of San Diego County to prepare for a big storm shortly before New Years Eve. A major system flooded much of southern California. But he mostly stayed off when he arrived in San Diego, denying the county’s substantial rain and snow.

“We had a very rainy month – December,” said Brandt Maxwell, a weather service forecaster. “But we need more.”

“The difference between a dry year and an average or wet year could boil down to just two or three big storms,” he added. “We don’t know if that’s what we’re going to get.”

San Diego has recorded 3.59 inches of precipitation since the start of the last rainy season on October 1. It’s a little above average. It is possible that the city and county will receive very little rain for the remainder of the season, which would put the region in dire straits by mid-summer.

The image is similar statewide.

Firefighter uses drip torch to ignite several prescribed stake burns on Mount Laguna

Vince Torcellini, a US Forest Service firefighter, uses a drip torch to ignite several prescribed pile fires on Mount Laguna on Saturday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that California has received an estimated 33.9 trillion gallons of rainwater since October 1. years recorded in California have occurred in the past 20 years. The state has not recovered what it has received over the years.

The Forest Service took advantage of Saturday’s favorable weather on Mount Laguna to conduct a prescribed burn on Sunrise Highway, not far from the small cluster of shops and lodging sites near the summit.

A fire crew burned large piles of vegetation that had been carefully spaced, with many mounds located near snow and ice to further reduce the risk of the fire spreading further than desired.

Part of the burnt area contained “widowmakers,” the name given to large branches that are blown from one tree by high winds and deposited in another tree. It is not uncommon for the wind to blow above 50 mph on the mountain. Widows pose a danger to hikers and campers and are often shot by firefighters when possible.

In a proven practice, the crew used drip torches to set the batteries on fire. Then they closely watched what happened. On-site weather information is taken every 30 minutes and compared to weather service data for the entire region.

Under certain conditions, the Forest Service will keep a firefighter on site overnight to keep an eye on things. At other times, it will patrol the area periodically during the night.

“There is a common misconception with a lot of people that we just go out and set things on fire,” said Kraling, who has worked in the Forest Service for 22 years.

Firefighter inspects day-old prescribed burn site

US Forest Service firefighter Jeff Mendoza on Saturday inspects the site of a prescribed burn that had been started the day before on Mount Laguna.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“There’s a lot of planning, a lot of anticipation, a lot of science behind it – where to turn the battery on, how to turn the battery on. Do you light up the windward side or the leeward side?

“You want to avoid damaging the existing landscape. ”

Saturday’s team included firefighter Diego Calderon, who has worked for the agency for almost four years.

“We use fire to fight fire,” Calderon said, wrapped in protective clothing. “You get rid of the dry fuel, beautify the forest and create something that people can safely enjoy. ”

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