Cal Fire will continue investing in technology to help fight wildfires, including a roughly $3.5 million pilot artificial intelligence program, but what it needs most is hand crews.

Santa Cruz County’s unincorporated areas saw fewer acres burned in wildfires in 2022 than 2021, and this year has been another milder year through July, according to a presentation Tuesday to the County Board of Supervisors by Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit Chief Nate Armstrong. The presentation reviewed 2022 and gave an update on 2023.

Armstrong cautioned that peak fire season has been arriving later in recent years and the county has seen an uptick in grass fires over the past week. Armstrong, who also serves as the chief of the Santa Cruz County Fire Department, said he expects fires to increase through September and October.

“I do expect to see kind of what we would have seen in years past, like 2017/18, in those years where we don’t see a whole lot of fires in Santa Cruz County until those fall months,” Armstrong said.

Can somebody lend a hand?

Cal Fire continues to deal with a shortage of hand crews in the state that began during the pandemic. Hand crews undertake several fire suppression jobs including creating fire lines and removing potential fuel by clearing wildlands.

“We’ve been challenged since 2020 to keep our hand crew numbers what they need to be,” he said.

There is funding for 152 hand crews in the state, but only 61 are staffed to the minimum level required to respond to a fire. Some crews are made up of people who have been convicted of certain crimes, some of which were eligible for early release during the pandemic, leaving the crews without the previous levels of recruits.

“We’ve been challenged since 2020 to keep our hand crew numbers what they need to be.”

Chief Nate Armstrong, Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit

Another 29 hand crews are fielded by the California Conservation Corps.

There were a total of 112 wildfires in the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit, known as CZU, coverage area in 2022. While that is slightly higher than the 104 fires in 2021, only 93 total acres burned in 2022, compared to 440 acres burned in 2021.

The largest fire of 2022 in the CZU area was 29 acres. Nearly all were contained to less than 10 acres. The average fire was 0.83 acres.

UC San Diego’s ALERTCalifornia System relies on a network of live cameras to gather real-time information about where wildfires might be developing and help firefighters respond before they can grow into devastating blazes. An interactive map allows users to zoom into the cameras covering a specific area. (ALERTCalifornia)

The five-year average for total acres burned in the coverage area is 17,565, but that includes the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire, which grew to 86,509 acres. The five-year average is 263 acres without including that relatively large fire.

Cal Fire has invested about $20 million in the ALERTCalifornia System, previously known as Alert Wildfire. The program uses hundreds of high-definition infrared cameras to create a monitoring network that can detect fires early. The pilot artificial intelligence component is designed to detect fires without a human operator viewing the cameras.