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Science & Technology

California Prepares For Difficult Fire Season Amid Drought


The drought in California increases the dangers of fire season. For one, fires are harder to fight. Low water levels mean there may not be a natural supply nearby for firefighters to use, so they have to be creative. Capital Public Radio's Katie Orr reports.

KATIE ORR, BYLINE: On a recent early morning in California's rural Yuba County, a group of fire trucks sits parked near several farmhouses. The firefighters are clustered around two square plastic pools about three feet high, held up by metal frames. Another truck backs up, and suddenly, thousands of gallons of water start gushing into one of the pools. The firefighters are from local departments and CAL FIRE, the state's fire agency. They're practicing what's called water shuttle training. Bill Shaw is the assistant chief at Foothill Volunteer Fire Department.

BILL SHAW: In a rural firefighting, we don't always have hydrant systems. We don't have municipal water plumbed everywhere. So when we fight a fire, whether it be a wildland or a structure fire, we need large amounts of water most of the time to handle that. So we have to haul it on wheels.

ORR: And this year, the haul may be farther than ever. Because of California's drought, water levels in lakes, streams and reservoirs are already low, and they're expected to drop lower as fire season continues. In fact, CAL FIRE's Lynne Tolmachoff says this training was moved because there wasn't enough water in the original location.

LYNNE TOLMACHOFF: They went and looked at the site yesterday and realized the water level in Dry Creek, which feeds into the Yuuba River, is too low. They can't access it.

ORR: So they moved to their current location next to an irrigation canal. Water trucks drive downstream, fill up their tanks and then return to empty the water into the 3,000-gallon pools. An engine then sucks the water up and shoots it back into the ditch, where, in a real-life situation, a fire would be. Firefighter Justin Hollingshead is in his fifth season with CAL FIRE. He says the pools take a while to put together.

JUSTIN HOLLINGSHEAD: I came on February 9, which is three months or so earlier than normal, which is great for me. But it's awesome because it gives me more time to kind of prepare and train on what the potential fire season might be.

ORR: Hollingshead says he's not really nervous about the coming fire season, though he knows there may be less water available. And assistant fire Chief Shaw says preparing for that lack of water is also part of the training.

SHAW: All of our streams and creeks and rivers and ponds are all at low levels this year, so it's going to be harder and harder for us to find the water we need to transport.

ORR: And that means his crews may have to travel farther to find it.

SHAW: And that's why today we have six water tenders here today to prove that we can go further and still get the water to the scene.

ORR: These portable pools are not the only option CAL FIRE has for getting water to remote locations. There are also larger models that hold between 6,000 and 10,000 gallons. Helicopters can dip buckets into those pools and drop the water over fires. Both the engine and helicopter pools are used every year, but they could be getting more of a workout this summer as the drought continues and water levels in lakes, rivers and reservoirs continue to drop. For NPR News, I'm Katie Orr in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.