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Vigilance, awareness key to fire prevention

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- On Jan. 17, with California facing water shortfalls in the driest year in recorded state history, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. proclaimed a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions.

Vandenberg has also been experiencing extraordinary circumstances due to the drought.

"Since the beginning of this year, there have already been four wildfires on the installation," said Mark Farias, Vandenberg Fire Department chief. "Typically this time of year, things would be turning green already. If you're driving to Santa Maria and you look to the left and then to the right...everything is brown. This is the driest it's been since they've taken record of the dryness."

According to the Proclamation of this State of Emergency, California is experiencing record dry conditions, with 2014 projected to become the driest year on record. The state's water supplies have dipped to alarming levels, drinking water supplies are at risk, fewer crops can be cultivated and farmers' long-term investments are put at risk. Animals and plants that rely on California's rivers, including many species in danger of extinction, will be threatened as the risk of wildfires across the state is greatly increased.
The dry weather has created a dangerous environment for Vandenberg's nearly 100,000 acres.

"The [moisture] reading [in Vandenberg vegetation] this week was somewhere around 17 or 18 percent, which is super low," said Farias. "Typically they're at 45 to 50 percent. Green plants typically don't burn well...but the vegetation out there now is highly flammable."

Unlike other parts of the country whose citizen crowd indoors because of a "Polar Vortex," Vandenberg's sunny skies and endless-summer allow residents to participate in many outdoor activities year-round that, paired with low moisture readings in the vegetation, could be dangerous.

In these conditions, it doesn't even take a flame to start a fire.

"Any off-road driving activities or parking any vehicles in grass that could have a hot exhaust is not recommended at this time because that could ignite a fire," said Jesse Hendricks, Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendent. "Also, hunting could become an issue. California is a lead-free state and some hunters use steel jacketed ammunition. That ammunition could hit rocks, create a spark and start a fire."

Sometimes all the proper precautions are taken and a fire still happens. The hot shots superintendent says timeliness and situational awareness will be the key to get the fire extinguished quickly.

"If its small and manageable, stomp it out with your boot, shovel or use a fire extinguisher," said Jesse Hendricks, Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendent. "If it grows beyond that then the quickest reporting leads to the quickest action. Dial 911 and make the fire known. When you do that, make sure you can describe where you are to the dispatch center so we can get to you as quickly as possible."

This year may be the driest California has seen yet, but if Team V maintains their vigilance, the base fire chief believes we can limit the fire danger.

"Maintain your vigilance when you're involving fire recreationally," Farias said. "It just takes one ember from that BBQ to go into that brush and you're going to have a fire. Basic common sense, proper planning, having awareness that it's drier than it's ever been in this state and knowing that resources are limited are essential to fire prevention right now."

For more wildfire safety tips, go to www.firewise.org.