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California Firefighters Ready for Severe Fire Season

A wildfire burns along the hillside on May 14, 2014, in San Marcos, California.

A wildfire burns along the hillside on May 14, 2014, in San Marcos, California.

Record high temperatures in May led to serious wildfires near the city of San Diego. The wildfires appeared months before California’s fire season usually begins. This followed nearly three years of little rainfall, and the driest year on record last year. It left trees and other plant life extremely dry.

Richard Cordova works for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE.

“When we have higher temperatures, lower humidity, and you throw winds in there, it’s just a recipe for extreme fire danger. And when we see those, all those three elements come together, CAL FIRE reacts and starts moving equipment around.”

In the town of Hemet, California, a CAL FIRE air tactical unit trains to stay prepared. The training takes place at an airbase for firefighting crews.

Helicopters take the crews to wildfires, and tankers drop flame retardant chemicals from the air. The chemicals help to suppress the production of fire.

Mike Venable is a pilot who flies an air tanker for CAL FIRE. He has put out minor fires on nearby grasslands.

“Everything from that to the challenging 12,000 to 14,000 foot (3,500 to 4,000 meter) peaks, maybe up in the high Sierras or, you know, in the forests that surround our base here, so it’s a very big variety of flying. Some can be very dangerous, some not so dangerous.”

Pilots and firefighters keep their equipment ready. Daily meetings about weather conditions keep them informed about areas at risk of fire. Careful measurement of fuel load and the weather helps with flight planning.

Battalion Chief Travis Alexander says aircraft are deployed throughout the state and can reach a fire in minutes. He says the planes and helicopters are there to back up firefighting crews on the ground.

“Because the aircraft in this agency is just one of many tools. We have the hand crews, the (bull) dozers, engine companies, a variety of other assets. The air program comes in as a support function.”

At a nearby fire station, crews stay ready to fight fires in populated and rural areas.

Pilot Max Venable says air and ground crews work to keep the fires away from homes and other buildings.

“If you’re able to help somebody on the ground, save a house, keep a firefighter out of a hazardous situation, that’s rewarding.”

It is a continuing effort to stay ahead of the fires. State officials say they have added 300 new firefighters. Thousands of others already work as firefighters in California. Their job this year is likely to be a hard one.

I’m Anna Matteo.

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