Blaze’s spread shows toll of drought

The Lake fire’s growth is un­usual given light wind and an al­ti­tude that ought to be damp in June.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paloma Esquivel and Rosanna Xia

BIG BEAR — Cal­i­for­nia’s first ma­jor for­est fire of the sea­son, which has con­sumed more than 11,000 acres in the San Bernardino Na­tional For­est, is be­ing fu­eled by nearly four years of drought.

The fire started Wed­nes­day and quickly spread up the moun­tains, at el­e­va­tions of 6,000 to nearly 10,000 feet. Un­der nor­mal con­di­tions, these ar­eas would prob­a­bly be wet from storms and per­haps still topped by snow.

“At higher el­e­va­tion, nor­mally you would have cooler tem­per­a­tures and your rain and snow would linger longer into the spring or early sum­mer,” said Lee Beyer, a U.S. For­est Ser­vice spokesman. “That’s def­i­nitely not the case this year.”

The fire burned into dry rugged ter­rain that had not seen a fire this large in more than a cen­tury, of­fi­cials said. The for­est is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to fire be­cause of a bark bee­tle in­fes­ta­tion that has left dead trees through­out the for­est.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires are gen­er­ally spread by hot Santa Ana winds that be­gin in the fall.

But this week, of­fi­cials were alarmed at how quickly the Lake fire spread even with rel­a­tively low wind con­di­tions. On Fri­day, winds were blow­ing about 8 mph to 10 mph, said Roger Pierce, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist for the Na-

tional Weather Ser­vice in San Diego.

“The fire re­ally took off, and we didn’t have that strong a wind en­vi­ron­ment for them,” Pierce said.

The blaze is 10% con­tained, and more than 1,200 fire­fight­ers are on the lines. Heavy smoke clouded Morongo Val­ley and poured into Coachella Val­ley. A NASA satel­lite im­age showed plumes of smoke all the way to Ari­zona.

The Lake fire erupted Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon near Jenks Lake Road in a part of the for­est where sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Boy Scout troops and churches from through­out South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, have sum­mer camps. By Fri­day, fire­fight­ers were fo­cus­ing on pre­vent­ing the fire from cross­ing Cal­i­for­nia 38, which winds through the moun­tains en route to Big Bear.

Just off the high­way, John El­li­son, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Mill Creek Hotshots crew, and his team were pre­par­ing to set a con­trolled burn in hopes of keep­ing the blaze from rac­ing down a hill­side.

The hill­side was dot­ted with pine and fir trees, some of which had burned and were fall­ing in pieces to the ground.

“We’re get­ting into the time of the sea­son where we’re go­ing to start get­ting busy.... This is just our first real fire of the year,” he said.

Wil­liam Patzert of the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in La Cañada Flin­tridge said the hot, dry weather is com­ing from a high-pres­sure ridge.

It “makes a dry sit­u­a­tion an in­cen­di­ary sit­u­a­tion,” Patzert said. “We ex­pect June gloom, we don’t ex­pect these crush­ing high-pres­sure sys­tems which are more usual in late sum­mer, fall.... This is all part of the drought pat­tern.”

Rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity lev­els this week are about 10%. Usu­ally at this time of year, they are at 50% dur­ing the day and could re­cover to 100% overnight from the marine layer, weather of­fi­cials said.

“I hate to say this, but this is a preview of com­ing at­trac­tions for, I guar­an­tee, a very long, hot, dry sum­mer,” Patzert said.

The heat and low hu­mid­ity have been trou­ble­some for fire­fight­ers who are work­ing to cut 10,000 feet of fire lines around the mas­sive blaze.

He­li­copters drop­ping wa­ter from lo­cal lakes have been work­ing to put out the flames while hand crews trekked into the wilder­ness to fight the blaze from the ground.

“Wa­ter is still the best method for fire at­tacks,” Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion spokes­woman Liz Brown said. “Ev­ery­one’s been on wa­ter sav­ing mea­sures for this very rea­son.”

Although the fire is burn­ing near Big Bear, it is head­ing east and not af­fect­ing recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties at Big Bear Lake, of­fi­cials said. About 2,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­ated as a pre­cau­tion. The fire was threat­en­ing about 400 struc­tures.

Big Bear res­i­dent Kris­ten Bar­den, who lives just out­side of the stretch of high­way that was closed to driv­ers, said the dry con­di­tions made her par­tic­u­larly wor­ried.

The sit­u­a­tion near her home looked bet­ter Fri­day than it did Thurs­day, when smoke bil­lowed over a nearby ridge and looked like “a bomb went off,” she said.

Nev­er­the­less, her fam­ily had pre­pared a bag with pic­tures, hard drives, clothes, food and wa­ter, in case they were told to leave, she said.

“We haven’t had any rain,” she said. “That’s what’s so scary, [Cal­i­for­nia] 38 is cov­ered in dead trees, it’s just fuel.”

This year, re­searchers with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice sur­veyed 4.2 mil­lion acres of trees in the Cleve­land, San Bernardino, An­ge­les and Los Padres na­tional forests and found that 2 mil­lion trees had died be­cause of drought and the in­va­sion of bark bee­tles. The tiny bark bee­tle thrives in dry con­di­tions, chew­ing away at pines and mak­ing them brit­tle.

“The tree kill, that also has played into why these re­ally thick trees that nor­mally would be able to sur­vive fires re­ally just aren’t able to right now,” Brown said.

The for­est also pro­vides much heav­ier fuel than the cha­parral that burns in brush fires at lower el­e­va­tions.

Tim­ber in higher el­e­va­tion ar­eas takes longer to ma­ture into dense for­est. But decades of growth and a few dry years have made this area of for­est ripe for large fires.

And it’s not just the old, thicker forests that are a con­cern this sea­son, Brown said. Small amounts of pre­cip­i­ta­tion last win­ter have brought con­cerns over “fuel reload­ing ” — when a lit­tle mois­ture can help sprout new blades of grass and veg­e­ta­tion, which dry out and add more fuel for a fire.

“When we do get to that later sea­son, which is our typ­i­cal high peak sea­son, we may see more ex­plo­sive fire be­hav­ior,” she said.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

A HE­LI­COPTER f lies into smoke to drop wa­ter on the Lake fire in the San Bernardino Na­tional For­est, which is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of a bark bee­tle in­fes­ta­tion that has left many dead trees.

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