The first fire season after the end of California’s epic five-year drought is off to a roaring start, with blazes burning throughout much of the state and scorching acreage in amounts far above past years.
Across the western United States, roughly 10,000 firefighters are battling 39 large fires that have scorched nearly half a million acres in heat wave conditions.
Heavy winter rain and snow conditions from last winter have nourished vast grasslands that are fueling the blazes, forcing evacuations and even generating warnings to Pacific Crest Trail hikers that smoke may imperil their health.
“In California, we’ve got about 2,300 firefighters out on the lines right now,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Friday, adding that crews are dealing with grueling weather conditions.
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“This weekend’s going to be tough,” she said. “We’re going into triple digits and it’s tough on the firefighters to deal with the heat, but they’re all doing really well.”
The latest major fire in Northern California, the Winters Fire burning in Yolo County, erupted Thursday afternoon and quickly burned more than 1,900 acres as firefighters battled the blaze from the air and ground.
The fire was reported Friday afternoon to be 31 percent contained.
A mandatory evacuation order was lifted at 2 p.m. Friday for Golden Bear Estates, a rural residential community near Winters, according to the Cal Fire incident web page.
The Winters Fire began about 12:45 p.m. Thursday in the area of Pleasant View Road, 3 miles southwest of town, according to Cal Fire.
Approximately 500 firefighters from agencies throughout the region were on scene, along with 50 engines, seven air tankers, seven helicopters, four water tenders and 14 bulldozers.
The day before that fire began, the Fay Fire in Siskiyou County singed 469 acres and the Quail Fire in Kern County burned 1,626 acres of grassland. On Friday morning, yet another blaze erupted north of Bakersfield and quickly burned 300 acres.
Those fires and the massive lightning-sparked Schaffer Fire that has burned more than 11,000 acres in the Sequoia National Forest north of Kernville are contributing to what may be a perilous fire season for California firefighters as they are shipped out to lend aid on various blazes.
Already, two engines from Sacramento Metro Fire and three from the Sacramento Fire Department have been dispatched to help battle the Winters Fire. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services also sent three strike teams totaling 15 firefighters to Nevada to help out on the Earthstone Fire, which has burned 33,700 acres just north of Sparks.
OES spokesman Bryan May said the teams were sent after a request Wednesday from the Nevada Department of Emergency Management and that they would remain on scene as needed.
From the start of 2017 through June 25, Cal Fire reported 2,135 wildland fires that burned more than 20,000 acres, far surpassing the five-year average of 17,896 acres burned for that period.
Federal firefighters reported a similar uptick over past years, with the National Interagency Fire Center reporting that more than 32,000 fires have burned 3.2 million acres so far this year, an increase of about 800,000 acres over last year at this point.
Many of the fires so far this year have been fueled by new grass growth and typically have not gone on for days and days. But as the season progresses, Tolmachoff said firefighters expect to see more fires burning through swaths of trees killed or weakened by the drought and bark beetle infestations, as well as dense undergrowth.
Cal Fire also expects to see more problems with hobby drones that individuals fly over blazes in hopes of getting video. Already this year, three drones have been reported over fire scenes, forcing aircraft to be grounded for safety until the drones left. No one has been cited so far this year, but Tolmachoff emphasized that firefighting aircraft cannot operate when drones are in an area.
“It’s such a struggle,” she said.