While blame has been placed on California's forest management as potentially being a primary factor in many of this year's historic wildfires, Kern County could be reaping the benefits of preemptive measures taken by local, state and federal fire agencies in the winter and spring.
At least so far.
On Monday while visiting Sacramento, President Donald Trump blamed the state’s leaders for “failing” to rake leaves and clear dead timber from forest floors, according to the Associated Press. It wasn't the President’s first time citing poor forest management as playing a role in the fires that have been raging across the state.
“When you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up,” Trump said. “It’s really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it.”
Christine McMorrow, public information officer for CalFire, said that any claims of poor forest management would “discount” the work her agency’s team does year-round throughout the state.
“We’re always doing some sort of fire reduction activities. Something is always happening,” she said.
CalFire contracts with Kern County and regularly provides funds for annual “fuels treatment” programs, McMorrow said. She said that prescribed burns are typically facilitated from throughout November to early June.
She explained that in 2017, CalFire recognized more needed to be done in terms of “thinning” brush and timber throughout many of the state’s forests. Since then, she said her agency has “ramped up” it’s thinning efforts and will continue doing so.
“There’s a lot of factors (for this year’s wildfires), it’s not just one thing,” McMorrow said. “(Brush and timber buildup) didn’t just happen in the last five years. That’s decades of a certain kind of attitude towards prescribed burns.”
She said that residents in certain parts of the state had previously been resistant to controlled burns.
Even so, locally, the Kern County Fire Department undertook efforts throughout the recent winter and spring months in order to “create a safer environment for our communities,” according to Andrew Freeborn, KCFD public information officer. Their hundreds of management projects included controlled burns, clearing brush, timber and other fuels throughout the county.
“We work with various crews and seasonal employees throughout winter and spring months,” Freeborn said. “It’s typically the work most people don’t see going on.”
He explained that most of the work is done around more populated areas throughout the mountains such as Alta Sierra, Tehachapi, Pine Mountain Club, Frazier Park and Lebec. KCFD also concentrated on a stretch of State Route 223 for controlled burns, as it's a common area for brush fires to occur, Freeborn said.
“We’ve seen historically that the section of road on (State Route 223) gets brush and dry grasses on the side of the road and there are a lot of vehicle fires that happen there,” Freeborn said.
These are done to prevent fires from becoming established, moving onto the base of the mountain, and impacting the community of Bear Valley Springs or going into the Hart Flat area, Freeborn said.
Gabe Garcia, Bakersfield field manager for the Bureau of Land Management, said his agency focused this past winter on clearing brush and having controlled burns in areas outside of Kernville. He said about 50 acres were cleared during this recent project.
“We’ve made a nice fire break between BLM lands and the community,” Garcia said. “We typically do certain areas annually we think are prone to fire.”
He described Kern County as being “lucky” so far when compared to wildfires throughout the rest of the state. With that, he emphasized residents need to stay “vigilant” in continuing to avoid fire risks.
“(BLM has) implemented an open flame ban so there are no campfires of any sort in our campgrounds or lands to mitigate the continued fire risk,” Garcia said. “Typically we don’t do a full ban, but we decided to call a total ban on all flames. (The ban) would last until November or December because there’s not a lot of rain in the forecast for this fall.”
There's always risk, particularly in recent months when record wildfires have swept across California. The only significant one that took place in Kern County this summer was the Stagecoach Fire in the Lake Isabella area, which occurred in early August.
Freeborn said that every month in the state is wildfire season, and KCFD is prepared to battle those blazes year-round. He said that the community can support KCFD and prevent wildfires by staying educated on what’s happening both locally and statewide.
“Educate yourselves on what you’re seeing in other cities and other counties for a long-term perspective,” Freeborn said. “If you want changes or additional services, those requests have to be made.”
In the short term, Freeborn said efforts as simple as maintaining “defensible spaces” around property, keeping up on car maintenance, not dragging chains from vehicles and avoiding hitting rocks while mowing the lawn can be integral in preventing unnecessary fires.
“It’s the small things that make such a big difference,” Freeborn said.