California Sen. Bill Dodd leads an oversight hearing Tuesday on state wildfire response

Chairman of the California state’s Senate Governmental Organization Committee, Bill Dodd, D-Napa, will hold a hearing tomorrow to review “improvements to wildfire preparedness and prevention,” including legislation and investments undertaken over the past five years. The Daily Republic of Solano County reported that the committee will hear from state and local agencies including Cal Fire and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and will take public comment.

Back in February, the Lake County News reported on Sen. Dodd’s announcement of legislation to create the Wildfire Mitigation Planning Act, to better prevent and contain wildfires. In the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire (which leveled the northern California town of Paradise and evacuated not just Paradise but also Magalia, Centerville, Concow, Pulga, Butte Creek Canyon, Berry Creek and Yankee Hill), Dodd co-authored AB 1054, which created a framework for electric utilities to evaluate their wildfire risk and plan for their wildfire mitigation investments and activities — overseen by the Office of Electric Infrastructure Safety within the California Natural Resources Agency.

alifornia Wildfire & Forest Resilience Task ForceThe California Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, a multiagency effort to identify needs and develop strategies for wildfire risk, has produced plans to better manage risk.

“With this cycle of heavy rains and prolonged droughts, we cannot take our eyes off of the risks that major wildfires present to communities across the state,” said Dodd. “The Legislature made good progress on wildfire safety and we must ensure our proposals and investments do what they are intended to do,” he said in a statement announcing the hearing, which will be held tomorrow after Senate adjournment.

The hearing will be available live at — background information is available at

What a wet West Coast winter foretells for fire season 2023

The above-normal winter precipitation in California and over parts of the American West has already raised the question — even before the floodwaters have receded — of how this winter precip might either dampen the fuel beds or spawn a monster crop of fine fuels come spring and summer of 2023.

There’s a lot of winter and spring to come, and the first-of-the-month fire outlooks are 10 days out, but many are sensing that fire season in wetter locales will begin later. This delay is more likely in California, which is coping with a walloping by deep and repeated atmospheric rivers, resulting in near-record snowpack and flooding that may be familiar historically but not during the most recent drought decades.

Consider the California snowpack as of Jan. 20, 2023. Whether by graph or map, the message is clear: the snowpack is significant and snowmelt periods will likely be extended. Statewide the snowpack is at 126% of the April 1 normal, but 240% for the current water year-to-date.

Calif Statewide Snowpack years 2023-01-20
California Statewide Snowpack as of Jan. 20, 2023.

With a focus on California’s rapid switch from drought to flood, it’s clearly a banner water year to analyze — which is too painfully clear to the many who are working through a long recovery from flood damages estimated to exceed $1 billion. As CNN reported, at one point an estimated 90% of California’s population was under some form of flood watch, which equates to 10% of the US population.

Per California Water Watch, the state is at 167% of average precipitation for this date, but storms aren’t a universal event. While the map for accumulated water year precipitation beginning Oct. 1 shows higher departure from average over most of the state, the most-intense  “purple” is being collected in the higher elevations in the central and northern mountains, and sopping the lower coastal regions that were hit full-force by the atmospheric rivers.

See California WaterWatch for regular updates.
See California WaterWatch for regular updates:

As damaging as the storms have been for so many communities, much of the West continues to feel the effects of long-term drought. A broader west-wide map of  precipitation of the past three months shows the patchiness of these bomb cyclones.

January 19, 2023 90-Day Percent Precipitation
Precipitation for the past 3 months.

Looking ahead, a range of analysis tools foretell the potential of a warm summer and the likely impacts of long-term drought returning. The five-month lead for June-July-August (JJA), from the North American Multi-Modal Ensemble (or NMME), paints a warm picture for North America, with most of the U.S. West at 70% or higher likelihood for warmer than normal temps. Which will in turn elevate the evaporation potential during growing (and curing) season.

NMME ensemble temperature forecast for JJA 2023.
NMME ensemble temperature forecast for JJA 2023.

The same JJA outlook indicates a potential for most of North America to receive normal summer precip (though normal is often quite dry for much of the Western regions), with wetter likelihood for Alaska and drier than normal for western and northern Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the lower Mississippi Valley into Texas and south to Mexico and Central America.

NMME ensemble precipitation for JJA 2023.

How these ensemble outlooks play out will depend in part on a projected switch from La Niña to neutral or potentially El Niño conditions. And the impact of the winter’s snowpack will depend on how early and warm the spring temperatures rise. More on that potential when we look at the February outlooks.

Thanks to the Analysts … Many of these resources are digested from the outlooks and links prepared and shared by National and Geographic Area analysts. So a thanks for the work these folks do, season in and season out. This update owes much to the analysts who produced the January outlooks for Northern California and Southern California.

Section of Hwy 41 designated as the Gary Helming Memorial Highway

Gary Helming Memorial Highway
On November 13 a section of Highway 41 in California was designated as the Gary Helming Memorial Highway. USFS photo.

On November 13 a section of Highway 41 in California was designated as the Gary Helming Memorial Highway. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department, CAL FIRE, and Los Padres National Forest Service were among those who attended the dedication Sunday along with a group of family, friends, and co-workers.

The Battalion Chief with the Los Padres National Forest was killed August 31, 2017 in a vehicle accident on the highway. He was returning from a wildfire on the Sierra National Forest.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration a Ford F-350 traveling in the opposite direction suffered a tire failure, crossed the middle of the road and struck Chief Helming’s vehicle head-on.

The accident occurred on Highway 41 just south of state Route 33 in Kings County, California.

In the video below, a CAL FIRE OV-10 lead plane honors Battalion Chief Gary Helming as the section of Highway 41 was renamed November 13, 2022. Video by Joel Lane.

After the accident an unofficial memorial appeared at the site.

Roadside memorial Chief Gary Helming
Roadside memorial for Chief Gary Helming who was killed in a vehicle accident at this location August 31, 2017. Photo by John Szalay, September 17, 2017.
Roadside memorial Chief Gary Helming
Roadside memorial for Chief Gary Helming who was killed in a vehicle accident at this location August 31, 2017. Photo by John Szalay, September 17, 2017.

Chief Helming started out as a seasonal firefighter and spent 22 years with the U.S. Forest Service. During his career, he also worked with the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service but returned to the USFS in 2013. He was stationed in Santa Maria as Battalion Chief with the Los Padres National Forest. His wife, Andrea, has served as Air Tanker Base Manager for the agency at Santa Maria. They have three children.

On January 21, 2015 Chief Helming was honored by the Santa Maria Elks Lodge as Outstanding Firefighter of the Year for Los Padres National Forest’s Santa Lucia Ranger District.

Gary Helming

Scientists fight climate change by cloning sequoias and planting them farther north

sequoia clone climate change
CBS News

Devastating fires over the last three years in California have endangered the limited number of giant sequoias to the point where scientists are cloning the huge trees and planting them farther north where climate change may produce suitable growing conditions.

Preliminary surveys found that in a two year period, 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle FireEarly estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years.

At this rate, with this climate, we could lose the rest of these massive trees in just a few years.

A team of expert horticulturists is using cloning technology to replant redwoods and sequoias and save their genetic material.

Photos of retardant dropped in Sespe Creek during Howard Fire

Map retardant Sespe Creek Howard Fire
Map showing location of photos of retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. The red area is the western side of the fire Oct. 12, 2022. The photo locations were obtained from the metadata in the iPhone photos.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleged that the US Forest Service has polluted waterways by firefighting air tankers inadvertently dropping fire retardant in or near waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act and a policy adopted by the Forest Service and other federal agencies in 2011. The policy requires that retardant not be dropped within 300 feet of a waterway on federal land.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 1. Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

Fire Aviation has acquired photos and a video that reportedly show signs of retardant being dropped into Sespe Creek on the Los Padres National Forest 8 miles northeast of Ojai, California October 8, 2022. The photos were shot by Pete Deneen on October 12, 2022 at the 85-acre Howard Fire. The creek is designated a “wild and scenic river” and is in a wilderness area.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 2. Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

The photos show retardant on rocks and other objects very close to water in Sespe Creek.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 3. Retardant in a dry area of Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

Some organisms, including aquatic threatened and endangered species or their habitats, can be adversely affected by retardants. In addition, retardant in water is a pollutant.

According to US Forest Service data, between 2012 and 2019, the Forest Service discharged retardant on at least 376 occasions totaling 761,282 gallons from aircraft directly into national forest waterways.

In the video below Mr. Deneen explains that there were two locations where retardant was dropped very close to the creek. In one case the aircraft may have turned as it was dropping to follow the creek for several hundred yards, or a second drop accounted for the retardant in the waterway.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 11 by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, FSEEE. In the group’s complaint they are seeking:

  • A declaration that the Forest Service’s placement of retardant in waterways is a violation of the Clean Water Act.
  • An injunction “to compel the Forest Service to comply with applicable environmental statutes, prevent irreparable harm, and satisfy the public interest.”
  • Reimbursement for FSEEE’s costs, expenses, expert witness fees, and attorney fees.
  • “Such further relief as may be just, proper, and equitable.”

More about FSEEE’s history of protesting retardant, and the federal government’s policy of retardant avoidance areas established in 2011.

Howard Fire ignites northeast of Ojai, Calif.

11:36 a.m. PDT Oct. 9, 2022

Howard Fire photo, 1020 a.m. Oct. 9, 2022
Howard Fire photo, looking west at 10:20 a.m. Oct. 9, 2022. FIRIS.

Aircraft were over the Howard Fire Sunday morning, including a lead plane and water-dropping helicopters.

The FIRIS OES 24 aircraft created an updated map at about 10 a.m. showing that the fire had grown to 85 acres, an increase of 10 acres since it was mapped Saturday evening.

The incident is 8 miles northeast of Ojai, California. It is burning on both sides of Sespe Creek and the 20W13 Road, 6 miles east of Highway 33.

FIRIS was able to see fire retardant around much of the fire as well as hand-constructed and dozer-constructed fire line on portions of the perimeter. The video below is from FIRIS.

7:15 p.m. PDT October 8, 2022

Howard Fire 3-D map 5:21 p.m. Oct. 8, 2022
Howard Fire 3-D map (in red) 5:21 p.m. Oct. 8, 2022

The Howard Fire started Saturday afternoon in a remote area 8 miles northeast of Ojai, California. It is burning on both sides of Sespe Creek and the 20W13 Road 6 miles east of Highway 33.

At about 5:50 the incident commander estimated it had burned 80 to 85 acres. About half an hour earlier it was mapped by the FIRIS aircraft at 75 acres.

Howard Fire
Howard Fire, looking southeast from Tecuyamtn1 camera at 4:32 p.m. Oct. 8, 2022. AlertWildfire.

For the first hour or so it was growing quickly putting up a convection column of smoke. Firefighters said it had the potential for 1,000 acres, but after aggressive initial attack by hand crews and aircraft in the difficult terrain, little smoke was seen as the sun was setting. Air tankers were able to complete a retardant line around 80 percent of the blaze by flight cutoff time. Orders were placed for aircraft to be available on the fire Sunday morning.

Several hikers were rescued by fire department helicopters.

Howard Fire map 5:21 p.m. Oct. 8, 2022
Howard Fire map 5:21 p.m. Oct. 8, 2022