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How Placer County firefighters are preparing for an 'earlier and earlier' fire season

In 2019, there were 258,000 acres burned and 700 structures destroyed, according to the Placer County Fire Chief.

PLACER COUNTY, Calif. — Firefighters in Placer County are bracing themselves for an earlier and earlier fire season that Fire Chief Brian Estes said could start at any time.

Chief Estes said the region has had a normal start to the fire season so far, but things could change quickly for Placer County Fire and Cal Fire, who cover 475,000 square miles from the Donner Summit to the Valley floor.

Chief Estes along with Placer County Supervisors Cindy Gustafson and Jim Holmes held a town hall meeting to update people on the start of fire season. Estes said the snowpack levels in the Sierra, which were 57% of normal, could be cause for concern.

"How that is going to affect us in Placer County is further down the road when we get to the late summer early fall months. That is where we are looking to see our biggest threats,” Estes said.

He said Placer County has more homes and other structures in rural areas than any other county in California. He also said that, over the 4th of July holiday weekend, the fire department received 300 calls for service and had 30 vegetation fires.

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While Estes touted defensible space as a key component of fire season preparation, he also emphasized community engagement.

 “The number one most important thing that a homeowner can do is become engaged in their community," Estes said. "I’m talking about grassroots engagement, knowing your neighbors. They (residents) are aware of the mass communications like the Placer Alerts (and) the Ready Placer campaigns”

County leaders said they are also implementing safety measures to make sure firefighters are safe during the coronavirus pandemic when working on the front lines.

 “If we were to have a large damaging fire in the country where we need to set up a base camp and bring in firefighters from the region, we are looking at taking some precautionary measures. How we brief people, how we feed people, and how we can bed people on those off-shift times,” Estes said.

Due to issues related to the coronavirus, the “inmate hand-crew program” has been downsized from 196 crews statewide to 147 crews, according to Chief Estes.

Nonetheless, Placer County still has defensive measures like the North Fork American River Shaded Fuel Break, a project designed to protect residents from a wildfire along the interstate 80 corridor between Colfax and Auburn.

Chief Estes estimates that more than 5,000 private residents in that band would ultimately be protected by the fuel break.

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