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Drought means early fire season

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POSTED January 24, 2014 1:32 a.m.

The last thing that the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District is supposed to be thinking about in January is how best to fight grass fires.

But the lack of rain coupled with the miles of freeways and rural roads that wind their way through the district’s territory are giving Fire Chief Gene Neely fits – forcing him and his staff to take an early look at what normally isn’t an issue until late spring.

Not thinking about it, he said, could be disastrous.

“The lack of rain and water is a problem, but the good side to that is the grass hasn’t really had anything to help it grow like it normally does in the winter months,” Neely said. “But there are parts of the district – especially along some stretches of the freeway – where the grass was never mitigated because it’s too steep and it’s too tough for Caltrans crews to get in there.

“That kind of stuff burns really hot, really fast and it can get out of control. Earlier this month when we had that RV fire we had a grass fire as well, and fortunately there wasn’t really anything to fuel it and we were able to contain it. But that could have been bad.”

A big portion of Lathrop-Manteca’s district includes stretches of Interstate 5 and the Highway 120 Bypass. Both are maintained almost exclusively by Caltrans and maintenance crews tasked with eliminating underbrush and vegetation that can be a major fire hazard.

And for the most part, Neely said, the state agency has stayed on top of knocking down the weeds that creep up along most of the expanses of open space.

But it’s the rural parts of the district that really has Neely concerned.

With sections that run clear out to the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers, entire patches of dead vegetation – some of it which can easily grow over head high – provide the ultimate kindling for an errant cigarette or a wayward spark.

The area is popular with young people that float from Caswell Park in Ripon down into the area and end up walking back out to a vehicle that they park nearby. Something as simple as hitting a rock can ignite a fire that can burn out of control faster than crews can respond.

“We’re fully staffed out there at the Union Road station now – Measure C has allowed us to keep three full-time guys on at the two stations in Lathrop and a grant has allowed us to have two on at both the Union and Lathrop Road sites,” Neely said. “But I’ve also been talking with Kirk (Waters, Manteca Fire Chief) about how even though we help each other out a lot as it is, we’re going to have to do even more this year.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of backfilling and covering and helping one another out. It’s going to be a long season for the both of us.”

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