Inland Empire firefighters are preparing for a rough summer. Currently 48 new recruits are being trained to battle the blaze of perhaps one of the driest seasons. San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Michael Wakoski is especially worried this year with good reason.
"The El Nino did not develop down here in Southern California like it should have or was predicted to. That's ok, but is a lot dryer down here in Southern California right now. We're starting to get fires a little earlier. Normally we don't get them until the end of July."
While there isn't a distinct fire season in California, the hot months of summer and notorious Santa Ana winds are known to spread fires across the region making them extremely difficult to contain.
"We're pretty much in fire season anytime we have about a week of warm weather or dry weather. This is Santa Ana country where we have north east winds that blow very hard and have very low humidity. With those kinds of conditions, they'll drive fires a long way and they'll get really big."
California fires are inevitable but not always predictable. Wakoski says it's not if a fire happens but when and where.
"This here is the greatest ticking time bomb, historically, you can ever imagine."
San Bernardino is the largest county in the continental United States. This makes the region difficult to manage with just a handful of firefighters to work with.
"They have a lack of resources; the vegetation is dry. You never have enough firefighters when you get a fire. No matter where it is it seems like you never have enough."
Wakoski says the department is spread throughout the entire area, a little more than 20 thousand miles, so that they're ready to tackle multiple fires. Concentrating on one area, even a high risk area, isn't always a good idea.
Fatigue is another factor in fighting fires. In order for firefighters to work efficiently and to minimize fatalities, proper rest is needed.
"When you work for 25 or 35 days straight without any time off, you start making mental mistakes. So we have to manage that fatigue. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to put our crews to rest while there's an ongoing fire. And it's just a matter of life and death and safety."
Safety is also a huge concern with the public who often try to save their properties.
"Many people are killed every year because they decide they want to stay at their house and protect it and never realize how bad it can get. And it gets bad."
At the first sign of a fire, people are heavily advised to evacuate, especially in more rural areas like Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear. However in more populated areas, things are a little different.
"I give talks all the time about how to protect yourself against wildfires in the urban community and the first thing I tell them is 'The fire department may not come.' We don't have a fire truck for every house. We work cooperatively throughout the summer because not one department can handle the situation when it gets bad."
Battalion Chief Michael Wakoski has been a firefighter for 40 years and worked in California and the Southwestern United States.
For more information on fire safety and how to fire proof your home visit the San Bernardino County Fire Department website here.