Santa Clara County has largely been spared some of the worst effects from California’s increasingly destructive fire season over the years. But local fire officials say that likely won’t last forever.

Factors such as elevation, weather and luck have typically experienced Santa Clara County from experiencing large blazes seen elsewhere throughout the state. Though that may not always protect the county from changing weather patterns and statewide drought.

The area has historically benefited from onshore winds, which blow in off the sea, and other coastal influences, Cal Fire Santa Clara County Division Chief Dwight Good said.

“Normally, we have the cooler moisture air coming in, which really discourages fire growth,” Good told San José Spotlight.

“It’s not an if, it’s a when. Santa Clara County will experience a large wildfire again, I just don’t know when.”

Dwight Good, Cal Fire

David King, a National Weather Service meteorologist, says there are three main ways to start a fire: human-created sparks, dry thunderstorms that produce lightning and offshore winds that come down over the mountains that can create friction against dry fuels.

The Santa Clara Valley has largely been protected from offshore winds because of its low elevation, King said. The winds aren’t as strong by the time they reach the valley floor.

Lighting strikes caused several large fires in California last year, including the SCU Complex fires, but King says Santa Clara County may have just gotten lucky over the years when it comes to these lighting strikes.

“It’s a very, very specific act,” King told San José Spotlight. “It’s something that can be very rare depending on where it strikes.”

This map shows the perimeter of the SCU Lightning Complex fires. (Image courtesy of city of San Jose)

Changing conditions

Officials have described the SCU Lightning Complex fire as an anomaly. The blaze charred nearly 400,000 acres areas of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Santa Clara counties and took fire crews about six weeks to contain, according to Cal Fire.

San Jose Fire Department spokesperson Erica Ray said the fire came close to crossing the San Jose border, even prompting evacuation warnings. Santa Clara County had never seen a fire like that, she said.

“Cal Fire really worked aggressively to keep that fire from spreading down the east foothills and into the residential neighborhoods,” Ray told San José Spotlight, adding the San Jose Fire Department personnel were also deployed. “But it was very, very close.”

California has experienced both an increase in the number of fires and size during the last 10 years, Good says, which he largely attributes to changing, exaggerated weather patterns across the western U.S. — less, but more intense rain and higher temperatures.

“It’s either 110 degrees or we’re getting a year’s worth of rain in an afternoon,” Good told San José Spotlight.

Almost everyone in the county is potentially at risk from wildfires, especially those living closer to large open spaces, Good said.

“It’s not an if, it’s a when,” Good told San José Spotlight. “Santa Clara County will experience a large wildfire again, I just don’t know when.”

Much of California is also in a severe drought.

King says that the state is seeing record levels of dry fuels, while Good noted that 80% of fires are started by humans.

“Don’t be that spark,” King said.

Stretched thin

The San Jose Fire Department responds to 1-3 vegetation fires daily during fire season, while also helping with larger wildfires throughout the state. In 2020, Ray said the department deployed an entire strike team in one go.

San Jose’s fire department had two firefighters out on overhead assignments at the River Complex Fire in the Klamath National Forest as of last week and another two at the KNP complex in the Sequoia National Park, Ray said. But that number of deployed personnel is low compared to what it has been.

“It’s not really indicative of what we have provided over the course of the summer,” Ray said. On Friday, the department deployed an additional 20 firefighters and two battalion chiefs to the Fawn Fire in Shasta County.

The department last month had 30-40 crew members helping with wildfire efforts throughout the state. San Jose firefighters have assisted state and federal fire crews on nearly 10 blazes since June, including the destructive Dixie and Caldor fires.

Some firefighters have to pick-up overtime shifts to make up for crew members that are on assignment at wildfires, Ray said. But the lead agency covers all personnel costs.

“Overtime ends up being a wash since the agency is paying for the other resources who are deployed,” Ray said.

Good says his unit is enjoying some rest this week. For the first time in two months, all the Santa Clara Unit’s fire crews were home. But the fire season isn’t over just yet, he added.

“This is like half time. We’ll enjoy it while it lasts,” Good said.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.