USA — The economy struggled, unemployment was sky-high and swine flu raged across the landscape. But California actually got lucky in 2009 in one big area: fires.
Despite enduring a third year of drought and some major blazes in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties, California experienced a surprisingly mild wildfire year last year, according to final tallies this week by the state’s leading firefighting agencies.
All together, 402,181 acres burned last year statewide on lands overseen by Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, the two agencies that fight the vast majority of wildfires every year in California. That was less than a third of the record 1.3 million acres that burned in 2008.
The reason: the weather. There was less dry lightning, fewer bursts of Santa Ana winds and generally cooler summer temperatures than normal.
“Some years are just luckier than others. It’s like going to the craps tables. A lot of this is the luck of the draw,” said Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga.
It was the least destructive fire year since 2005, with little more than half as many acres burning as the state’s annual average of 711,060 acres over the prior five years.
“Our expectations were for another big fire season,” said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Vallejo. “We’re in a drought, and we had a lot of dry conditions out there.”
Bracing for the worst after a devastating 2008 season, the state’s main firefighting agency, Cal Fire, opened its 228 stations a month early, in mid-May instead of June.
At first, it seemed like another disastrous summer.
A big fire in the hills above Santa Barbara, sparked May 5 by a person clearing brush, forced the evacuation of much of the city and generated TV images of towering flames that were shown worldwide. That blaze, dubbed the Jesusita fire, eventually burned 8,733 acres and 160 structures, including 80 homes.
“A lot of people thought that was going to set the tone for the season,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “But as the season continued, we didn’t have the same large growth of fires that we were seeing in other years.”
The record fires in 2008 were sparked by freak dry lightning storms in June that had 2,000 wildfires burning at the same time across Northern California. But in 2009, the lightning storms rarely occurred, and when they did, rain often followed, Berlant said.
There also weren’t many Santa Ana winds in 2009, he said. Those winds blow hot dry air across the desert and out to sea, turning Southern California chaparral into explosive fuel and, as the detective writer Raymond Chandler
Adding to the good weather news, summer temperatures were milder than normal in much of the state in 2009. San Jose’s average maximum high in June, July and August was 80 degrees3.3 degrees less than the 30-year average. Similarly, it was 1.9 degrees cooler than normal over that time in Los Angeles.
Despite the mild season, some fires did grab headlines.
The largest fire of the year was the Station fire, which burned 160,557 acres in the Angeles National Forest north of Pasadena. Sparked by an arsonist who has never been caught, the fire started on Aug. 26 and burned 89 homes over three weeks.
Two Los Angeles County firefighters died when their truck fell off a cliff as they were trying to escape the flames in heavy smoke.
In Santa Cruz County, a fire that began in rugged backcountry near the Lockheed Martin facility on Empire Grade Road burned 7,817 acres north of Davenport. Miraculously, a few cabins and sheds burned, but no primary residences were lost. The cause remains under investigation.
Longtime business Big Creek Lumber saw about 1,700 acres of its timberland burn, roughly a quarter of all its land, said Big Creek President Janet McCrary Webb.
“Up on the ridges, the manzanita and huckleberry and small redwood burned severely,” said Webb, who watched flames creep 200 feet from her home. “But it is sprouting back. There are redwood sprouts a foot tall already.”
The fire destroyed scores of Douglas fir and Monterey pine trees, along with lots of brush, she said, but it didn’t kill large redwoods, which have fire-resistant bark.
Statewide, wildfires destroyed 490 structures in 2009, down from 2,219 in 2008.
Yet as 2010 begins, fire experts are nervously looking to the skies. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was 95 percent of normal on New Year’s Day. But after three years of drought, more rain is needed to boost low moisture levels in the ground and many plants.
“We still have another three months that could hopefully bring us more water,” said Berlant. “But if we don’t get it, we could be facing the fourth year of a drought. And we may not be as lucky as we were in 2009.”