Six Marin County fire engine crews and a bulldozer were sent to fires in Sonoma and Napa counties Wednesday and more stood ready as city and county firefighters girded for action across Marin.
"Our fuels are curing nearly a month earlier than normal, creating what is certain to be a longer and busier fire season," said county Fire Chief Jason Weber, noting a dry winter, hot weather and windy conditions prompted an early "red flag" fire warning this week. Officials expected to lift the warning thanks to easing winds, even though temperatures in the mid 90s were forecast Thursday afternoon.
After the fire warning was issued Tuesday, a wildland blaze broke out in Knights Valley northwest of Calistoga shortly after midnight, burning more than 100 acres within a few hours, and Marin firefighters were sent to help. Another Marin crew was in Napa County, assisting on a 75-acre blaze near Silverado Trail.
Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said the two Northern California fires were part of "above normal" fire activity across the West. The Sonoma fire was fanned by winds stronger than the 25 mph bursts clocked atop Big Rock in Lucas Valley on Wednesday. Earlier this week, offshore winds churning the Pacific were powerful enough to keep Marin salmon boats at bay.
The skies have been as dry as the winds are strong. Marin Municipal Water District tallies indicate 5.11 inches have fallen at Lake Lagunitas in 2013, far below the average 31.5 inches for the first four months of the year. In all this water season, which stretches back to July, officials logged 38.4 inches, down from the 50.32-inch average for this time of the season.
"There are going to be a lot of red flag days this year," said Corte Madera Battalion Chief Paul Hager. "It's been dry and the grass is high," he said. "Sonoma County is burning already."
San Rafael fire Chief Chris Gray said the fire weather forecast "looks to be epic."
Plentiful rain last fall spurred growth that dried out this year, he noted. "So when temperatures go up, humidity drops and the winds pick up, they form a deadly combination that remains our most serious fire threat in the community," Gray said. "With fire conditions right, unfortunately it doesn't take much for ignition and then rapid fire growth."
"We are expecting severe fire conditions in the weeks and months to come," Gray said. "San Rafael engines are fully staffed" the chief added, cautioning that prevention is the key as "we are severely overmatched by the power of nature and the fatal mix of fire weather, flammable brush, steep topography and homes in and around open space."
In Tiburon, "we are anticipating an early fire season," agreed Chief Richard Pearce, who joined others in urging residents to get ready now.
"There are many ways to provide defensible space around your home," Pearce noted, ranging from use of fire-resistant building materials and plants, "vegetation clumping to create islands," clearing of brush and debris and related strategies to "remove the fire ladder."
Officials said residents can call firehouses across the county for fire preparedness advice and often, as time allows, site inspections.
Weber said county firefighters will visit Marin neighborhoods in June to educate residents "on how to fire-harden their homes." He added 60 seasonal firefighters, some of them arriving at the Woodacre firehouse this week to pick up their gear, will augment the 85-member county department, enabling staffing of seven additional engines, the Tamalpais Fire Crew, a bulldozer and extra dispatch efforts over the summer.
He noted a countywide fire training exercise will send engines and firefighters to various Mill Valley and Tamalpais Valley locales this weekend, and that state fire officials will kick off an annual fire season warning campaign on Monday.
On Tuesday, county supervisors will declare "wildfire awareness week" as officials remind residents to take fire preparedness seriously.
Wildfires have been catastrophic in Marin County over the years. In the most recent disaster, campfire embers triggered the Vision Fire on Inverness Ridge in 1995, a blaze that destroyed 48 structures and burned 12,354 acres before it was doused by more than 2,000 firefighters from across the state.