State braces for hellish fire season

State braces for hellish fire season

22 August 2009

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USA — The eruption of fire last weekend in Santa Cruz County and 10 other spots around the state would not be so vexing to California fire bosses if the ominous foreshadowings of trouble weren’t already piled so high.

There have been 5,384 wildfires this year, almost 1,200 more fires than last year. This year’s unusually large number of lightning strikes have added another element of distress as the state struggles with a third year of drought.

“We are very concerned about the conditions in California right now,” said Chief Del Walters, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “The number of ignitions is way up but our acreage is down.”

Fires have burned 144,295 acres so far this year, compared with this time in 2008 when 4,231 wildfires had burned 353,203 acres.

It is not yet known what caused last week’s Lockheed Fire, which scorched nearly 8 square miles of coastal forest and caused the evacuation of some 2,000 people as it threatened the Santa Cruz County communities of Bonny Doon and Swanton.

It was one of 11 fires that 6,800 firefighters battled around the state. One blaze in Yuba County was started by the flaming feathers of a red-tailed hawk that got tangled in a power line.

Numerous lightning strikes

Lightning has been a particular problem this fire season, Walters said. Some 20,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges over 25 days in June and July.

“We’ve had an extraordinary amount of lightning this year,” Walters said. “It’s very unusual to have lightning that many days in a row.”

The saving grace, he said, was that rain and moisture prevented fires from getting out of control. He said Cal Fire engines are now staffed with four firefighters instead of three, which may have helped keep the burned acreage down.

Still, on Aug. 1, dry lightning ignited several fires in eastern Shasta, Trinity and Humboldt counties, some of which are still burning.

The same thing happened last year. Lightning ignited so many fires on June 21, 2008, that the smoke at times blotted out the sun.

“The last few years, even going back to 2006, there has been more lightning than usual,” Walters said. “We’re seeing more extreme weather.”

The fire situation in California is uncannily in line with the most frightening scientific predictions of years past. A study by NASA in 2007 said the amount of lightning would increase about 6 percent in future years as the amount of carbon dioxide – the chief gas blamed for global warming – doubles.

The U.N.’s International Governmental Panel on Climate Change predicted drier, hotter forests, and numerous studies focusing on the western United States have forecast increases in the frequency of wildfires.

It doesn’t make fire officials feel any better that the worst part of the fire season is still ahead.

A recent Oregon State University study predicted huge fires in Northern California and in the Sierra Nevada over the next six months as a result of the hot, dry conditions. The evolving El Niño weather pattern, the researchers said, could produce even more lightning.


Firefighting costs

Meanwhile, the cost for fighting California wildfires topped $60 million over the past few weeks. State funding to fight wildfires survived the budget crunch and will remain at $519 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, with a $182 million emergency fund.

The fear among fire officials is that the state budget crisis will take away the 4,400 California prison inmates who are trained every year to fight fires. The state is considering reducing the prison population by 27,000 as part of its effort to balance the budget, potentially decimating the pool of inmates who are trained to do the grunt work at fires all across the state.

Walters said firefighters are bracing for September and October when hot, offshore winds begin to blow. The Bay Area is a particular fire danger zone, especially in Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, where suburban communities abut forest lands.

“When you are already dry is potentially the worst time of year for wind-driven fires and history bears that out,” Walters said. “The message is, we’ve got a long way to go this year and the people who live in fire-prone areas need to have a plan and be prepared to evacuate on a moment’s notice.”

Fire safety tips

— At least 30 feet on flat ground and 100 feet down slope should be cleared of trees and brush around your home and the remaining trees and shrubs should be regularly pruned.

— Wood shake roofs should be replaced with a fire-resistant roofing material.

— Rain gutters and roofs should be regularly swept clean of leaves, pine needles and other debris.

— Attic and foundation vents should be covered with mesh no larger than a quarter-inch to prevent sparks and embers from a wildland fire from entering your home.

— All combustible material should be stored away from your home and the lids should always be kept on garbage cans. A separate enclosure should be built for firewood.

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