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Q&A: Letting fires burn, help from the timber industry? | Your California wildfire questions answered

With the fast-moving fires of California's fire season seeming to arrive earlier than usual, questions are arising around protection and prevention.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With the fast-moving fires of California's fire season seeming to arrive earlier than usual, as well as burning bigger and faster, questions are arising around everything from prevention to protection. 

ABC10 stands for you, so we set out to answer viewer questions.

Question: Would more involvement/business from the timber industry help prevent these types of wildfires?

The wood/lumber/timber industry has been a topic of discussion as fire season encroached the past few years, even being mentioned in Wednesday's recall election debate by John Cox, one of the Republican Gubernatorial candidates bidding for Governor Gavin Newsom's seat.

"[We need to] revive the timber industry," Cox said in the debate. "We ran them out of business with regulations. They would clean the forest. They would build fire breaks. They would help make sure fires were controlled."

Retired Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said, while logging is beneficial to fire prevention, it's just one tool in a big toolbox of forest management tactics. He said California has 30 million acres of forest land, both in private and public ownership. Here's how he explained it:

"Certainly managing that resource for timber, for harvesting trees, the value lumber provides. But also the wildlife habitat, the water quality, the air quality, soil protection... all of that is part in parcel to how forests are managed... What we're seeing in fires now is we've had a really abnormal build up of vegetation over the years for a variety of reasons. Fires have been suppressed, so forests that depended on all those natural fires to occur aren't getting that. Areas meant to harvest. So there's a lot of reasons why we're not able to manage the forests to the level they should be. That's been a great deal of the focus right now and certainly, logging, timber harvesting and engaging in forest practice work is a significant component to helping manage the forest, but it's one tool across the landscape. Using fire when appropriate is obviously helpful and other measures to work on, all of it together help us reduce this threat."

Question: Did the U.S. Forest Service let the Tamarack Fire burn?

The Tamarack Fire was started by lightning over a month ago. On July 10, the U.S. Forest Service said in a Facebook post they decided to not send fire crews due to safety concerns for firefighters and that the fire "posed no threat to the public, infrastructure or resources values."

But nearly a month later, that same fire has burned just under 69,000 acres, traveled across state lines into Nevada and burned multiple structures, according to U.S. Forest Services' Incident Information System.

ABC10 asked Pimlott if allowing this fire to burn was a mistake. He said while he understands needing to protect firefighters, allowing it to continue to burn in the peak of summer may have been costly. Here's his explanation: 

"California is a fire dependent state. We're going to have fire one way or the other, so we've got to continue to find ways to live with fire and there's some significant programs to try and find ways to re-introduce that. But right now -- in the middle of summer -- at the peak of conditions we're in and with the climate that we're facing right now -- right now, this time of the year is not the time to allow fires to burn. We need to be looking at every one of these and taking every opportunity we can. We want to save that for opportunities when the window to do that burning is appropriate. You can't guarantee anywhere, truly few places in California right now, where you can allow a fire to burn unchecked for a week that isn't going to be impacted by changing weather conditions. Our vegetation is critically dry from drought and increasing temperatures. When that fire escapes that initial attack or phase, really they're burning 10 to 15 miles in a day. In the case of the Tamarack fire, Lake Tahoe is 10 to 15 miles away. With 40 million people in California, infrastructure and all that has the potential to be impacted now based on the conditions we're facing. Really, that's the point, but in addition for firefighters, of course, it was risky to go in and initially suppress that fire but it was only a quarter of an acre for a number of days. When the fire blew out, now we have risk to an entire community, multiple communities and hundreds of firefighters. So, we've got to keep these fires small now and then work on them and try to reduce the fire through fuel loading and other means when we can do so safely."

Question: How do I find out if my home was burned down?

The wait of finding out whether or not your home is still standing is stressful and daunting. Here are some resources for more information on your home nd property:

The first is by looking at your county's GIS website, which stands for Geographic Information System. Here's a link to Plumas County's GIS

Cal Fire creates maps with structure statuses. Here's a link to the Dixie Fire's structure status website. 

It's worth noting, the accumulation of current structure statuses takes time for fire officials. They make damage assessments, pictures and also determine if a structure is completely or partially gone.

In some cases, firefighters and law enforcement agents on scene offer escorted visits into an area for residents once its been deemed safe to do so, which gives residents the opportunity to look for themselves.

In many cases, updates are posted on county government websites, but you may have to frequently check back as these types of situations are ever changing.

Question: Why are resources like thousands of firefighters, planes and helicopters not deployed when the fire is starting out? 

As we saw with the fast-spreading Dixie Fire, numerous planes were circulating, dropping fire retardant and water across Butte and Plumas counties. But how they're deployed is actually very systematic. Former Cal Fire Director Pimlott explains:

"There's a system in place to provide the closest resources to when a fire starts. That's exactly what happened [Wednesday] when these fires (River Fire) started. They got a very aggressive response from all the agencies. It was ground resources and aviation resources, (who) all responded very quickly. Once they make an assessment of the fire and where it's going, additional resource orders are put in place anticipating the potential of the fire and what they'll need."

Pimlott said resources are pulled from multiple firefighting agencies across the state.

Question: Is there anything different about this particular fire season?

It's not uncommon for California to have multiple fires burning at the same time. For the past few years, it's something we've seen repeatedly. But Pimlott said multiple fires burning used to be the exception to the rule, but now, firefighters and agencies are preparing for this kind of fight every fire season.

"So, you start to get these large, really complex fires - like the Dixie Fire - and combine with the day to day activity. The more of these fires you get at the same time and occurring in different generations, obviously, it can provide strains on resources," Pimlott said.

He said California fire agencies have complex response systems that are some of the best in the world. They're prepared to respond to fire season months in advance, and they are also now preparing to bring in additional resources outside of California, using National Guard assets and always trying to be prepared weeks ahead to account for things like firefighter's rest and maintaining resources.


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