Drought makes California vulnerable to busy fire season

   Drought makes California vulnerable to busy fire season

10 September 2009

published by www.usatoday.com

USA — Even as a mammoth wildfire still burns in the San Gabriel Mountains, California hasn’t seen this year the level of destruction that flames delivered the past two years.

That could change soon however, fire officials say. A prolonged drought, which is drying up vegetation and fueling a seemingly endless fire that has burned more than 250 square miles of Los Angeles County, could be the start of a fall siege in Southern California.

“We’ve had extreme fire behavior: 2007 and 2008 were what firefighters refer to as ‘siege years,’ ” says Janet Upton, deputy director for communications for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CalFire. “We’re certainly hoping we’re not entering a third siege year.”

California is in the third year of a drought that has contributed to extreme fire conditions. Fire officials say the lack of rain makes brush burn more easily. And when fire hits parched forests, the fire tends to burn faster and do more damage.

“You can have a fire go through the same area, and the damage to a forest is always more significant in drought years,” says Del Walters, director of CalFire. Trees and logs burn hotter and more completely in droughts, he said, and their heat kills nearby trees that might otherwise survive.

Potential for a busy year

Even with the drought, there’s plenty of available water to fight most fires, but pilots of firefighting helicopters and tankers may have to fly farther and work harder to fill their buckets. Firefighters are told to be careful to spread out their collection sources so they don’t dry out water holes that farmers and ranchers depend on.

“We’re not down to the point where we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, but we’re trying to be good neighbors and not wipe anybody out,” says Bill Payne, chief of aviation for CalFire. “They have to go a little farther for a good bucket of water … We try really hard not to impact one guy over another.”

And firefighters can use any available water — from the Pacific Ocean to backyard swimming pools, as well as lakes, ponds and streams.

Wildfires are common to the American West and indeed are — to an extent — part of a natural cycle. But fire officials say California, which has millions of people living on the boundaries between cities and wildlands, has seen a striking number of large, destructive fires in recent years.

The fire still burning in the San Gabriel Mountains northwest of Los Angeles has grown so large it is now the 10th biggest, in terms of acreage burned, since the state began keeping records in 1932. Of the 10 largest recorded fires in California, five of them occurred in 2007, 2008 or this year, according to CalFire statistics. And only three were prior to the start of this decade.

“We are in the third year of a drought, and there is all the potential to have another busy year with above-normal fire activity,” says Jason Kirchner, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The human factor

Humans cause nearly 95% of the fires in California, Walters said. The U.S. Forest Service says arson is the cause of the latest big fire, which started along the Angeles Crest Highway, the twisting route from the city into the high wilderness. Elevations exceed 7,000 feet in spots, and it is popular with car and motorcycle enthusiasts, as well as sightseers and hikers.

An October 2003 fire that burned more than 273,000 acres of San Diego County, killing 15 people and destroying 2,820 homes and other structures was the state’s most destructive. The October 2007 fire in San Diego County burned almost 198,000 acres and 1,650 homes and structures, killing two people.

In June 2008, a fire in Siskiyou County in Northern California killed two people and destroyed 192,000 acres. The biggest in the 20th century burned 220,000 acres of Ventura County in 1932.

Walters said the season begins in Northern California and moves southward as the year progresses, as brush dries out in the summer heat and fall brings the dry desert winds called Santa Anas, which can quickly turn a spark into an fast-moving inferno.

Walters, the state fire chief, says efforts have been successful this year in containing fires overall. This year there have been 6,131 fires on private lands in the state, about 1,600 more than at this point last year. The acreage burned is far less: 123,554 acres compared with 355,392 during the same period last year.

Most western wildfires burn federal land. The Forest Service counts 1,262 fires on federal lands in California this year, burning more than 271,000 acres and most of that is the one fire still burning. At this point in 2008, there had been slightly fewer fires on federal land in California, 1,194, but they had burned 829,200 acres.

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