Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires early, fe­ro­cious

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - CHRISTOPHER WEBER

LOS ANGELES — Tim­ber and brush parched from a years­long dry spell and thick grass that grew af­ter drought-bust­ing win­ter down­pours are mak­ing for early and un­pre­dictable wild­fire be­hav­ior that Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials say they haven’t seen for years, if at all.

Dense lay­ers of new grass are pro­vid­ing a “fine fuel” for flames that then gain speed and in­ten­sity by mov­ing through “stand­ing dead fuel” made up of veg­e­ta­tion and trees that shriv­eled dur­ing the state’s six-year drought, said Kath­leen Schori with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber a year quite like this one,” she said Tues­day. “There’s such a mix of fu­els that th­ese large, dam­ag­ing fires are start­ing at least a month ear­lier than usual.” The re­sult, she said, could be a longer and more de­struc­tive fire sea­son than Cal­i­for­nia has ex­pe­ri­enced in a while.

Crews were mak­ing progress against dozens of wild­fires across Cal­i­for­nia, Colorado, Ari­zona and New Mex­ico.

Author­i­ties sur­vey­ing the dam­age from a blaze in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia said Tues­day that at least 41 homes and 55 other build­ings had been de­stroyed near the town of Oroville, about 150 miles north­east of San Fran­cisco.

Res­i­dents had started to re­turn home af­ter flee­ing a wild­fire in the grassy foothills of the Sierra Ne­vada, about 60 miles north of Sacra­mento, but at least 4,000 were still evac­u­ated. The blaze burned nearly 9 square miles and in­jured four fire­fight­ers. It was par­tially con­tained.

Schori said this year’s con­di­tions were sim­i­lar to Cal­i­for­nia’s 1979 wild­fire sea­son, which came on the heels of a two-year dry spell and saw blazes black­en­ing 386 square miles of grass, brush and tim­ber. It caused more than $ 30 mil­lion in dam­age. Yet that year’s ma­jor fires didn’t kick off un­til well into Au­gust, she said, as did the de­struc­tive 1992 blazes that fol­lowed a drought that started five years ear­lier.

Down­pours dur­ing the win­ter pulled the state out of years of drought but also brought about a layer of grass that early-sum­mer fires are feed­ing on.

“That cre­ates faster-mov­ing fires, hot­ter fires, it car­ries fire much more read­ily,” said Santa Bar­bara County fire Capt. Dave Zani­boni, whose depart­ment was bat­tling two large wild­fires.

Older, dried-out trees and veg­e­ta­tion are es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous for wild­land blazes, but enough new and dry­ing grass can pro­vide links be­tween such tin­der­boxes.

With the dense grass as the “car­rier,” the fire­fight be­comes much more chal­leng­ing be­cause “you have to make sure the wa­ter is get­ting all the way down to the smol­der­ing ar­eas be­low,” Schori said. “It takes a lot more ef­fort to ex­tin­guish grass fires.”

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Bar­bara County, at least 3,500 peo­ple re­mained out of their homes be­cause of the pair of fires. The larger of the two charred more than 45 square miles of dry brush and has burned 20 struc­tures since it broke out. It was 45 per­cent con­tained. To the south, a 17- squaremile wild­fire that de­stroyed 20 struc­tures was 25 per­cent con­tained Tues­day. Ris­ing hu­mid­ity and light winds were pro­vid­ing crews a break.

In Colorado, crews were wind­ing down the fight against a wild­fire that forced the evac­u­a­tion of hun­dreds of peo­ple near the re­sort town of Breck­en­ridge. Fire­fight­ers built con­tain­ment lines around at least 85 per­cent of the blaze.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Andrew Dal­ton and Kristin J. Ben­der of The Associated Press.

AP/Santa Bar­bara County Fire Depart­ment/MIKE ELIASON

The Ran­cho Ale­gre Out­door School camp, seen Mon­day, sus­tained dam­age from the Whit­tier Fire near Santa Bar­bara, Calif.

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