The lack of any major fire activity during the first half of the summer has firefighters knocking on wood.
And there's a lot of wood on which to knock. The higher-than-normal rainfall in a longer-than-normal rainy season has produced grasses nearly everywhere, and the bumper crop of herbaceous fuel has smoke-watchers anxiously monitoring the Coast Range and the Sierra.
"We have a few weather stations along the forest, and we've been looking at the trends," said Jerry McGowan, forest fire management officer for the Stanislaus National Forest. "Those trends are climbing, but so far there haven't been any large fires this year within the United States. Everybody has been lucky."
Those trends to which McGowan was referring combine the rate at which fire fuel is drying with the weather forecast. With Friday's dry, extreme heat, followed by similar conditions today, all fire units are poised and ready for their first major battles of the season.
"Now that we're in late July, we're seeing high temperatures, and we'll start seeing fires as those fuels dry out," said Alisha Herring, CalFire information officer. "We're getting into the time of year when people need to be cautious about what they're doing outside and think about the effects of their actions."
McGowan pointed out that the lack of fires to fight doesn't mean fire crews have been sitting around working on their poker faces.
They've used this early lull to be proactive in the forest communities, educating the public about fire safety, and in the forests, clearing defensible space and reducing the amount of fuel where possible.
"There's a lot of good work being done on fuels reduction in the Stanislaus Forest," McGowan said, adding that the education program is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Wet year a mixed blessing
The spring snow and later snow melt in the Sierra, as well as the overall amount and lateness of the precipitation in the Sierra and the Coast Range were a blessing and a curse.
The long, wet spring has yielded a bumper crop of usually fast-burning high-elevation brush and grasses, but much of it is remaining green several weeks longer than usual.
As a result it might not be as susceptible to fire as it normally would at this time of the year, but the tradeoff is a fire season that might be extended by several weeks, depending on weather.
"It has reduced the fire risk for now but created a better crop of grass, which will burn fast when it dries later in the season," Herring said. "There's an abundance of grass even in desert regions."
In June, the Forest Service looked over all available data and concluded that the 2010 fire season (through October) should fall into the normal range. That's good news after a record-breaking 2008 season and an above-average 2009.
The largest fire to which CalFire has responded this season was the 2,000-acre Robinson Fire southeast of Snelling on June 11-12. It was contained in less than 11 hours after the initial report.
But that was more or less a flatland fire with limited fuel, nothing like the large forest blazes typical of California's hot, dry summers.
"The trend right now is that the next few days with 100 degrees will dry the fuels out," McGowan said. "In the last 10 days, it has been drying and now we're going to get higher temperatures.
"But we're not just waiting around for the fires. The training has been done and our resources are in place. This is the time of year."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.