A cigarette, a car backfire: Small sparks make big fires
SACRAMENTO (AP) — A carelessly discarded cigarette, a downed power line, a car’s backfire or a chainsaw’s pull. Just about anything could have started any one of the wildfires now tearing through Northern California, authorities said.
“Every spark is going to ignite a fire,” said Ken Pimlott, the state’s top firefighter. He said the risk remains “extreme for new starts.”
Pimlott said Tuesday that investigators are looking into the causes, but no determination has been made at any of the sites of major wildfires blazing in Northern California. Authorities said 22 were burning Wednesday.
Pimlott, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection director, said “98 percent” of all wildfires are started by people and it’s unlikely lightning is to blame for any of the fires that exploded overnight Sunday, killing at least 21 people so far.
California’s most dangerous wildfire season comes in autumn, when summer heat and insects have left brush dead and dried out, and winds are especially hot, dry and strong.
“This is traditionally California’s worst time for fires,” Pimlott said.
Pimlott said firefighters typically respond to 300 blazes a week during this season, but nearly all are extinguished quickly and with minimal damage. It’s unusual to have many major fires burning at once, he said.
However, conditions were ripe for wildfires in California wine country after record rains last winter created an abundance of dry vegetation, which combined with low humidity and unusually high winds gusting to 79 mph to create fast-moving infernos.
Pimlott told reporters Wednesday that the state was still feeling the effects of five years of drought and that the winter rain was gone, leaving behind critically dry vegetation to fuel fires.
None of the major fires has been contained. They are spread over a 200-mile region north of San Francisco from Napa in the south to Redding in the north, taxing firefighting resources.