Officials worry that state faces worst wildfire season in years

Officials worry that state faces worst wildfire season in years

4 August 2009

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USA — Charles Lammers spends time every winter clearing the dead brush around his modest, two-story house, making sure any approaching wildfire doesn’t have a direct path to his door.

It’s something many residents in his rural community of Midpines have taken care to do since a massive blaze a year ago charred 53 square miles and destroyed 30 homes in the area southwest of Yosemite National Park.

“I think a large group of people are aware of the fire danger, but I think there’s a huge group that have no concept of how easy it is for a major, devastating fire to come through and burn your house, destroy the value of your land,” Lammers said.

Federal and state fire officials are warning that a third year of drought means California could face one of its worst wildfire seasons in years.

Scientists say the danger could be heightened by global warming.

Peak fire season begins July 1, but Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said a severe, early spring fire in Santa Barbara has fire officials concerned about the intensity of this year’s wildfire season.

“Experts believe that climate change may be influencing drought and therefore wildfire occurrences, but that’s an ongoing study,” she said.

There already have been 2,959 wildfires this year in California, up from 2,354 a year ago at this time, Upton said.

Though the state has seen more fires this year, less area has been destroyed than during the same period last year.

A total of 27.8 square miles have burned so far this year, compared to 530.2 square miles this time last year, according to state fire officials.

Upton attributed the decrease to the fast, effective response of fire crews, even though state budget cuts have reduced the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s coffers by $27 million this year. The amount includes funds for a proposed exclusive contract for a DC-10 airtanker.

An executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in May allowed fire officials to secure and deploy the resources needed to battle wildfires.

The governor also has exempted fire personnel from statewide furlough programs.

“The number of resources on the ground are the same, with the exception of that one DC-10,” state fire department director Del Walters said.

If the plane is needed, it can be taken out on a pay-per-use period, he added.

On Tuesday, a brush fire erupted on a brush-covered ridge between the city of Los Angeles and suburban Glendale. It burned about 40 acres and led to voluntary evacuations after flames potentially threatened homes.

A weekend lightning storm sparked a round of blazes in Northern California that briefly threatened homes in Shasta and Lassen counties.

Nearly 1,200 firefighters were deployed in an area of Shasta County where flames burned more than 11 square miles, or 7,200 acres. The fires were about 10 percent contained.

Another 800 firefighters were in nearby Lassen National Forest battling a series of wildfires covering 4.7 square miles, or 3,000 acres.

Mandatory evacuation orders involving 130 homes were lifted, but the fires — also started by the weekend lightning — were only 5 percent contained.

Progress was being made in Central California’s Stanislaus National Forest, where a 7.8-square-mile blaze was about 45 percent contained.

The causes of those fires remained under investigation.

No major damage to homes has been reported in the recent fires, a trend that fire officials hope to keep up with the help of residents like Lammers.

Lammers has positioned water tanks on the hill above his house and one below. Tree limbs have been lifted off the ground, and there’s hardly any dead brush for at least 200 feet around the property.

Upton encouraged the preparedness but also warned homeowners to do their brush-clearing in the winter or spring.

“People use power equipment and will mow dead grass with a mower, and it’s not meant to do it,” she said. “You get too late in the year and you pick the wrong day, you run a risk of starting the thing you’re trying to avoid.”

Fire restrictions in effect in Los Padres

In response to the increasing danger and possibility of wildland fire, Los Padres National Forest officials announced additional fire restrictions starting Tuesday.

The restrictions will remain in effect until the end of fire season, when the forest receives at least 2 inches of rainfall.

The newest fire restrictions include:

• Recreational target shooting is prohibited in all areas of the national forest except at the Winchester Gun Club in Santa Barbara County and the Ojai Valley Gun Club in Ventura County. Hunting with a valid California hunting license is exempt from this restriction.

• Smoking is prohibited in all areas of the national forest except within an enclosed vehicle, building or campfire site.

Fire restrictions already in place include the following:

• Open fires, campfires or charcoal fires are allowed only in campfire use sites. You must attend to your campfire at all times and extinguish it completely before you leave.

• Portable stoves and lanterns using gas, jellied petroleum or pressurized liquid fuel are allowed in areas other than campfire use sites, but only with a valid California Campfire Permit. The free permits are available at any Forest Service office.

• Internal combustion engines may be operated only on roads or trails that are designated for such use.

For a list of campfire use sites and for further information, go to the Web site at

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