Environment & Science

A bumper crop of grass means potential for catastrophic fires is high

The Kern County Fire Department inspects approximately 32,000 houses during June to make sure their owners have cleared brush and grass. Fines start at $500 for a violation.
The Kern County Fire Department inspects approximately 32,000 houses during June to make sure their owners have cleared brush and grass. Fines start at $500 for a violation.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

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For a snapshot of how fire season might be different this year in the Sierra Nevada, drive Highway 178 along the swollen Kern River. Last winter’s historic rain and snowfall have produced a bumper crop of grass, creating the potential for large wildfires this season when combined with the millions of trees that died during the drought.

An example was the Highway Fire that broke out in knee-high grass just south of Lake Isabella on June 18.

“We are out of a drought because we got more rain,” said Zach Sneyder, who heads up hazardous fuel reduction for the Kern County Fire Department. “The rain produced more fuel that’s ready to burn.”

The Highway Fire burns through knee-high dry grass along State Route 178 in the Kern River Canyon on June 18, 2017.
The Highway Fire burns through knee-high dry grass along State Route 178 in the Kern River Canyon on June 18, 2017.
InciWeb

The huge amount of grass, combined with the memories of last year’s Erskine Fire, which killed two people in the South Lake community, prompted the fire department to increase fines for not cutting dead branches and clearing brush around homes. Citations have doubled to $500, and the fire department is planning to inspect every one of the 32,000 homes in the rural parts of Kern County to make sure homeowners are in compliance with the law.

On a scorching afternoon recently , Kern County Fire Capt. Neil Bullock pulled up alongside a home in rural Tehachapi that he’d visited two weeks prior. The homeowners still hadn’t pulled out chest-high clumps of rabbit brush that were within 30 feet of their home.

“We’re going to go ahead and issue citations today,” Bullock said, directing  firefighters to take pictures of the property to add to the department’s records.

Clearing so-called “defensible space” is important because it makes firefighters more likely to try to save a house. Houses with branches overhanging their porches, knee-high dead grass in the yard and pine needles in the gutters take more manpower to defend against flames. 

The Kern County Fire Department models
The Kern County Fire Department models "defensible space" on a plot of land outside Lake Isabella. The department keeps the grass mowed short, brush cleared, and trees de-limbed up to six feet. Homeowners have to do the same or face a fine.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

“We could save eight houses, or we could move all that equipment and save one,” explained Kern County Fire Capt. Jason Schillinger. “We want to save eight of them versus that one.”

Most of the 350 citations issued in Kern County so far this year have been for dead grass. But in the more alpine parts of the county, homeowners also have to deal with dead trees.

Kern County is home to just over six million of the 102 million dead trees in California. The fire department doesn’t require people to cut them down because it’s too expensive – costs can top $1000 per tree – but fire officials do require that trees be de-limbed up to six feet off the ground. Dead branches hanging over structures must also be removed.

There’s a lot of debate over how much dead trees contribute to fire risk. State and federal officials say California’s ailing forests are a tinder box.

Firefighters lined up along California Highway 178 on June 22, 2017 to do battle against the Highway Fire.
Firefighters lined up along California Highway 178 on June 22, 2017 to do battle against the Highway Fire.
InciWeb

 

But some recent studies have found that trees killed by bark beetles don't necessarily increase fire risk. A 2016 study of forests in the Pacific Northwest published in Environmental Research Letters found that following insect outbreaks, fires were less severe. Another study of the northern Rocky Mountains found that wildfire severity was largely determined by weather and topography, not the presence of beetle-killed trees.

What people do agree on, however, is that when living trees get more water, they’re less likely to burn. Which is exactly what happened during last year’s historic winter, when the Sierra Nevada got as much snow as the previous four years combined.

“You see the difference in the oak trees,” said Kern County forester Jeff Gletne. “They’re brighter, perkier.”

That will change as the summer heat bakes the moisture out of trees and bushes. But at least for now, firefighters are mostly dealing with a lot of small grass fires, according to CalFire.  

So far this year, there have been more wildfires statewide than during the same period last year. 

"The potential for large fires is high," said Kern County Fire's Schillinger. But without an ignition source, all that grass will remained unburned fuel.

"People always ask, 'Oh, this is going to be the worst fire season, right?' And I’m like, 'If you get the starts it could be. If you don’t get the starts, it’s not going to be a bad fire season.'"

And it largely falls to us to prevent those starts. Nationwide, people are responsible for more than 80 percent of wildfires.

Special coverage: California's fire risk

This story is part of a full day of special coverage examining the summer fire season following this winter’s record rain and snow. Check out the rest of our coverage below:

Erskine Fire: We checked in with the Kern County town devastated by one of last year’s most destructive wildfires. The Erskine Fire burned more than 280 homes, left two people dead and displaced hundreds. As KPCC’s Sharon McNary reports, it’s been a slow and difficult return to normal for many.

Extreme weather: In California, we went from extreme drought to extreme rain in less than a year. Take Two ventured into the hills with an ecologist to talk about how all the wet weather will factor in.