How To Fight A Wildfire Without Water

In the midst of a historic drought, California firefighters are doubling down on methods like digging and starting fires

Aug 04, 2015 at 4:48 PM ET

Not only has California’s record drought provided ripe conditions for the largest wildfires in California history—the water scarcity is making it trickier to fight those fires.

“California is a drought state—this isn’t new. But we’re seeing an increase in difficulty finding reliable water supplies so we’re having to do a couple of things,” says Dennis Matheson, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We order additional resources and use tactics that use less water.”

Those tactics include defensive measures like digging and burning. California firefighters dig lines with shovels and bulldozers so exposed soil will slow or stop approaching wildfires. Another method is controlled fires. “If it’s night, and the temperature is cooler and the wind conditions are right, we put fire on the ground and fight fire with fire,” Matheson says, “We’re constantly looking at ways we can suppress the fire in ways where we don’t have to rely on water as much.”

But, of course, water is still a necessity, and firefighters try to track the water they do use. “If we need to take water from municipal water supply, they become a part of our team. We work with municipalities to use specific hydrants so we know how much water we use,” says Matheson. “We work with landowners and ranchers if we’re taking water from their pond. We try to refill, replenish or compensate financially.” He declined to provide numbers on how much water the firefighters are using per day and how that compares with previous years.

At the end of the day, though, their function is to put out the fires, however they get it done. “We have a job to do and when wildfire occurs and communities are at risk, we’re going to do what we need to do to protect those communities.”