Drought contributes to several Merced County grass fires

dwitte@losbanosenterprise.comAugust 1, 2014 

It’s been a busy week for firefighters in Merced County, with three large fires on the Westside.

Merced County Fire Chief Mark Lawson blamed the drought, now in its third year.

“We’re feeling it from a local perspective,” Lawson said, “And it continues to compound problems when we’re not getting significant rainfall.”

Merced County saw a few grass fires, all of which were 100 percent contained within a few days. Bigger blazes are raging in California.

The El Portal fire near the western entrance to Yosemite National Park has burned 3,900 acres and was 34 percent contained Thursday; a 7,000-acre fire burning in Madera County was 10 percent contained; and a 4,200-acres fire in Amador County was 95 percent contained.

The Los Banos Fire Department has contributed to the El Portal effort, sending a three-man strike team in an engine along with Assistant Fire Chief Tim Marrison in his own vehicle. The group left Saturday and returned on Wednesday.

Locally, a July 24 fire near Gun Club Road near Gustine grew to 400 acres. It was contained the next day with the help of about 50 firefighters. The prevailing winds brought haze and smoke to Los Banos. . Two more fires started Saturday, with one south of Highway 140 and Howard Road south of Livingston reported in the morning and another north of Gustine near the Hatfield State Recreation Area.

The fire south of Livingston grew to 225 acres before being contained by about 40 personnel, and the blaze at Hatfield grew to 930 acres and drew about 105 firefighters from Merced, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties and the city of Newman.

Lawson said fuels for these blazes come in three categories – light fuels like the grasslands of the valley floor, medium fuels like the brush in the foothills and heavy fuels like the timber in Yosemite.

“We’re down here in the lower elevations, where we have the lighter, flashier fuel,” he said. “You’re not going to see it as much down here, but up in the foothills, where you have the transition from grass to brush it can be very dangerous. We’ve got burning conditions that I think are what we usually see in September, so we are a month or two ahead in our conditions.”

What the Westside has is dry conditions, constant wind and a lot of that light, flashy fuel, officials said.

“Especially when the winds kick up on the Westside, they flash up quicker,” Lawson said. “If we see an increase in humidity over the night hours, it’s very little and by morning it’s dry and ready to go again.”

While some fires are unavoidable, Lawson said many can be prevented.

“If people are going camping, first of all do they allow for campfires? And if they do, make sure you’re burning them in legal container devices and putting them out completely,” he said. “If you’re smoking near dry vegetation, don’t put it out near the vegetation. Even a chain dragging down the road can start a fire. The ignition component is very high.”

The ignition component he refers to estimates the probability that a firebrand (such as a match) will ignite a blaze. He said the current component number for the area is 85 to 90.

While Merced County fire has not had any of its personnel called to the larger fires in Yosemite and Madera, he said with the structure threat in both of those fires, it probably will be called on to contribute engines at some point.

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