Firefighters Fear an Uncontrollable Fire Season This Year


That is the word now being used among fire chiefs in California to describe the kind of wildfires we could experience this year. Last year was a crushing year for California.

Wildfires in 2018 burned more than 2,800 square miles, destroyed 17,000 homes and killed 100 people. Despite record rainfall earlier this year, and recent cool weather, Southern California firefighters are bracing for another busy fire season.

NBC4 was invited to fly with the Orange County Fire Authority. Seated inside a water-dropping Huey helicopter, we are able to get a bird's-eye view, and a firefighter's perspective about on the landscape.

On a scale of one to 10, OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy says last year was a 10 and this year, "We are expecting the same."

The view from the chopper is stunning. Lush greens and yellows drape the mountains and fill the valleys. But this beautiful landscape could be creating a false sense of security.

"We have not seen this kind of green in many years, but this will die off," says Fennessy.

The grasses will dry out quickly, given the high temperatures and low humidity expected this summer. That dry grass then becomes fuel for brush fires. Southern California currently has a powerful fuel bed that combines living plants, known as live fuel and beneath it, largely unseen, is dead fuel which is the result of years of drought.

Fennessy says those fuels create an environment where we "are going to see rapid fire spread."

This combination of fuels also causes fires to burn hotter, and burn faster, but the biggest wild-card in wildfires is wind.

"That's where we are losing the homes. That is where we are losing the lives," Fennessy says.

The certain, but unpredictable Santa Ana winds have the potential to outmaneuver event the best fire precautions.

"You put 40-50 mph sustained winds — and gusts to 60-70. There is very little defensible space or not that we are going to be able to do to control those fires," says Fennessy.

Last year's wind driven Woolsey fire, was the most destructive fire in Southern California history. At one point embers jumped five lanes of highway, to extend the fires devastating reach into Malibu. This year's combination of fuels along with the Santa Ana winds, could lead to fires that are beyond wild.

"We are going to experience fires, if they start in certain areas that are uncontrollable" says Fennessy.

Uncontrollable fires means that the firefighting focus will shift to rescue, because "suppression efforts will yield very poor results."

Despite being anchored in the mountains and foothills, Fennessy says no community is safe wildfires.

"When we evacuate people we shut down businesses, we shut down communities. The billions of dollars that affect the and impact the economy affect everybody."

Here are things you can do right now to protect your home and your family.

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