Thunderstorms in forecast worry firefighters

Thunderstorms in forecast worry firefighters

21 July 2008

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USA — Firefighters will be watching the weather today as conditions build up in Northern California for isolated thunderstorms that could trigger a new round of lightning-sparked blazes.

The storms, however, should be nothing like those that brought a barrage of lightning bolts across the state on June 20. That siege of “dry lightning” started nearly 2,000 blazes and left much of California shrouded in smoke for weeks.

“The chances are minimal for an equivalent lightning siege, but there is still a concern,” Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Sunday.

The weather over the weekend was a boon to firefighters who already have contained all but 34 of the 2,096 wildfires recorded in the state since June 20. The vast majority of those fires were caused by lightning accompanied by so little rain that most of it evaporated before striking the ground.

One reason the forecast thunderstorms are less worrisome this time is that they are expected to carry some moisture. Still, they won’t drop enough rain “to put out the fires we currently have,” said Berlant.

Largest of those fires is the Basin Complex Fire in the mountains near Big Sur. It is now 70 percent contained, having consumed nearly 134,000 acres. That fire is now confined to rugged terrain about 10 miles east of Highway 1, and poses little immediate threat to homes.

Humidity on Sunday soared to as high as 85 percent as coastal fog crept far inland, and firefighters were actually hoping for drier conditions so they could set back-fires east of the fire line to burn up fuels that might otherwise carry the wildfire further.

“Once the fire reaches that burned-off fuel, it should stop right there,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Joe Pasinato.

When humidity climbs too high, the backfires do not burn efficiently enough to consume low-lying brush, so firefighters actually prefer humidity around 20 percent for controlled burns, he added.

Cheryl Millham, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care center, said a 7-month old bear cub found burned by a blaze in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest was still in critical condition Sunday night and was having the dressing on his charred paws changed daily.

“He has lost all of what is left of the pads and we saw some bone,” she said. She said they expect to see some healing in about 10 days.

But the cub, dubbed Li’l Smokey, is eating well, she said.

“He has a good appetite,” Millham said. “He eats canned peaches, canned pears, watermelon, grapes. He also drinks bear formula because he would still be nursing.”

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