National Guard Troops Search For More Dead As California Wildfire Toll Hits 56

A brush-clearing and tree-trimming project done by the city in 2016 helped prevent multiple homes from burning when a wildfire struck in north Redding two years later. The fuels-reduction work shows how advance preparation can reduce the spread and intensity of a fire where homes are surrounded by a dense landscape. Wochit

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is calling in the National Guard for the first time next month to help protect communities from devastating fires like the one that largely destroyed the city of Paradise last fall.

It's pulling the troops away from President Donald Trump's border protection efforts and devoting them to fire protection, another area where Trump has been critical of California's Democratic officials — even repeatedly threatening to cut off federal disaster funding.

Starting in April, 110 California National Guard troops will receive 11 days of training in using shovels, rakes and chain saws to help thin trees and brush, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Mohler said.

They will be divided into five teams that will travel around the state working on forest management projects, mainly clearing or reducing trees and vegetation in an effort to deprive flames of fuel.

"They will be boots on the ground doing fuels projects alongside Cal Fire crews," Mohler said. "We've had them out for flood fighting, several different operations, but this would be the first time their mission would be fuels thinning and forest management."

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In this Jan. 17, 2014, file photo, a firefighter clears brush as firefighters continue to battle the Colby Fire near Azusa, Calif. California is calling in the National Guard for the first time to help protect communities from wildfires like the one that destroyed much of the city of Paradise last fall. The state is pulling the troops away from President Donald Trump's border protection efforts and devoting them to fire protection, another area where the president has been critical of California officials. (Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

They have helped fight fires before, however.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first in recent decades to deploy California National Guard troops as firefighters. That occurred on July 4, 2008, after lightning storms sparked hundreds of fires, Guard Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma said.

He referred questions about the latest effort to Cal Fire, which is directing the Guard's new assignment.

The training is similar for firefighting and fire protection. Mohler said the troops also will receive some training in forest management, "so they're not just out there cutting brush" but understand why they're doing what they're doing.

For instance, firefighting crews generally cut fire lines down to mineral earth during active wildfires, while fuels management crews often do less-intensive thinning of trees and chaparral to slow advancing flames.

That often involves creating fuel breaks. They can range from stripping away all woody vegetation on wide strips of land to thinning larger trees and removing shorter trees, brush and debris to discourage fires from climbing into treetops and jumping from tree to tree.

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In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo firefighters work to keep flames from spreading through the Shadowbrook apartment complex as a wildfire burns through Paradise, Calif. California is calling in the National Guard for the first time to help protect communities from wildfires like the one that destroyed much of the city of Paradise last fall. Starting in April 2019, 110 California National Guard troops will receive 11 days of training in using shovels, rakes and chain saws to thin trees and brush. (Photo: AP Photo/Noah Berger, file photo)

Critics say the work damages forests and can be useless against wind-driven fires, like the one that jumped a river to rain embers on the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Paradise last year, killing 85 people in and around the Northern California city of 27,000 people.

"Cal Fire is taking the Trump approach, logging the forest and weakening critical environmental protections, and that's the exact opposite of what we need to be doing," Center for Biological Diversity scientist Shaye Wolf said.

She said the better approach is to make homes more fire resistant while pruning vegetation immediately surrounding homes.

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In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, the Camp Fire burns along a ridgetop near Big Bend, Calif. California is calling in the National Guard for the first time to help protect communities from wildfires like the one that destroyed much of the city of Paradise last fall. Starting in April 2019, 110 California National Guard troops will receive 11 days of training in using shovels, rakes and chain saws to thin trees and brush. (Photo: Noah Berger/AP)

Cal Fire this month listed 35 fuel-reduction projects it wants to start immediately, covering more than 140 square miles (362 square kilometers) — double the acreage in previous years. But state officials estimate 23,438 square miles (60,704 square kilometers) of California forestland need thinning or other restoration.

"It's not a problem that's going to get fixed overnight," Mohler said.

Such thinning operations are getting more attention in recent years, with the U.S. Forest Service estimating last month that 18 million trees died in California over the past year.

The agency estimated that more than 147 million trees have died across nearly 15,625 square miles (40,469 square kilometers) during a drought that began in 2010, while about 1.5 million dead trees have been cut down.

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In this June 12, 2018, file photo, firefighters clear burned and unburned brush from a hillside above Portola Drive after a wildfire broke out in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles. California is calling in the National Guard for the first time to help protect communities from wildfires like the one that destroyed much of the city of Paradise last fall. Starting in April 2019, 110 California National Guard troops will receive 11 days of training in using shovels, rakes and chain saws to thin trees and brush. (Photo: AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file photo)

Moreover, investigations have often blamed recent wildfires on utilities not doing a good enough job of clearing vegetation around power lines and equipment. Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa has proposed legislation that would require Cal Fire to tell utilities which trees and brush to remove and then inspect the work.

Aside from Guard troops, Cal Fire also is creating 10 civilian fuels management crews this year. The 10-member crews could help with initial fire suppression if need be but will primarily reduce fuels, Mohler said.

"It's going to be a pretty amazing sight to see as these crews get out there on the ground," he said. "There's hundreds of, unfortunately, Paradises cross the state, (so) the public needs to understand this."

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Source : https://www.redding.com/story/news/2019/03/20/california-national-guard-leave-border-help-stop-wildfires/3223690002/

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