Due to increased risk of wildland fires, on Tuesday an agency comprised of top federal and state fire managers raised the national fire Preparedness Level to its highest point.
But Monday night weather and current fire conditions, which include active fires burning throughout the west, prompted a decision by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group to bump up to the highest mark, Ferris said.
The Preparedness Level ranges from one, indicating minimal activity, to five, which signals very high activity.
The heightened alert reflects a high degree of wildfire activity, a major commitment of fire resources, and the probability that severe conditions will continue for at least a few days – maybe longer, Ferris continued.
Lightning storms, particularly in Northern California and moving east through Idaho and up through Montana, have officials on high alert. Locally, Monday morning’s lightning storm sparked small fires in the Lake Elsinore area, but crews were able to quickly knock them down.
The weather forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms in the local mountains tonight.
“The decision to move to Preparedness Level 5 reflects the complexity facing our federal and non-federal fire managers,” said Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “This has been a difficult and tragic season, including the loss of 30 of our nation’s firefighters.”
As of Tuesday, 31,986 wildfires have burned 3.4 million acres in the United States this year, according to Ferris. While both of those figures roughly represent only about 60 percent of the 10-year average, wildfire activity has escalated in recent days after thunderstorms, many with little or no moisture, moved across parts of California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, sparking hundreds of new fires.
The fire forecast for most of the West shows a general continuation of hot and dry weather into the fall, according to Ferris.
Tuesday marks only the fifth time that Preparedness Level-5 has been reached in the last 10 years. The high level indicates fire suppression resources are becoming scarce, said Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
During PL-5, further assistance from the military, beyond what is already in use, and international resources may be considered and requested, but no decisions have been made concerning those steps, according to Ferris.
Ferris said when PL-5 is reached, difficult choices get made.
“It’s a hard call. Who gets the aircraft, who gets the remaining Hotshots,” he explained.
Although Southern California is not experiencing the onslaught of lightning storms that regions up north are, the area is still dry and volatile.
Initial attack resources are in place, Ferris said.
Most of Southern California’s wildland fires are human-caused and the region has the biggest values at risk because of population density, he continued.
What’s unusual this year, according to Ferris, is how early Southern California fire season established itself.
“The Mountain Fire was very interesting,” he said.
The cause of the massive wildfire that forced the temporary evacuation of thousands of residents in the Idyllwild and Fern Valley areas and burned more than 27,000 acres in July was sparked by faulty electrical equipment. But extremely dry conditions usually experienced in the fall helped fuel the blaze.
Lake Elsinore and Wildomar residents are more familiar with the Falls Fire that burned for five days during the first part of August and consumed 1,393 acres in the Cleveland National Forest, near the Ortega Highway.
The area is considered an anomaly because of the way fire can burn so fast, downhill toward Lake Elsinore – according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Steve Beach. In California only the east-facing mountains in Mendocino share the same unique behavior, he said.
Ferris said Southern California should be prepared for more and residents should take care to create defensible space around their homes and property.
“I have a feeling you have more fires to contend with,” he said.