California firefighters are caught in a nightmarish game of whack-a-mole.
They are putting out wildfires at breakneck speed, often before they do much damage. But as soon as one fire is extinguished – if not before – another pops up.
During the last week alone, firefighters have mostly contained two significant wildfires near Sacramento, only to see a third one break out. The most recent fire, the Lowell fire in Nevada County, started Saturday and has destroyed 1,700 acres and was 20 percent contained by Monday afternoon.
Through July 25, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had responded to about 3,900 wildfires in 2015 – about 1,300 more fires than the agency typically fights by July’s end, preliminary state data show. California fire officials blame the drought and historically dry conditions.
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Cal Fire has been remarkably successful at quickly putting out those blazes, even to the chagrin of some experts who say the state needs to let more wildfires burn.
The average wildfire size this year for areas protected directly by Cal Fire or under contract with the agency is about 8 acres. Last year, it was roughly 16 acres. By comparison, the average wildfire size since 1987 is 28 acres, according to a Bee review of state fire data.
Some of that success is due to low wind speeds. Wind causes fire to spread; lack of wind makes fire easier to contain. Southern California, where gusts often fuel wildfires, has seen below average wind speeds during this drought, federal weather data show.
“We have not had a really serious Santa Ana type of wind over a period of time – we really haven’t seen them over the last few years,” said Donald Turcotte, a professor of geology at UC Davis who has extensively modeled the conditions that lead to wildfires. “That’s when you really have problems.”
Having more resources has also helped keep fires small, state officials said.
California has augmented funding for fighting wildfires by roughly $100 million in each of the last two years, state officials said. CDF has used that money to hire an additional 300 firefighters and to buy new equipment, including airplanes. More firefighters and better equipment often, but not always, translate into smaller fires.
“We are very aggressive,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said in an interview Monday. “I am absolutely pleased to see the acreage level low.”
The Wragg fire in Napa and Solano counties illustrates Cal Fire’s aggressive approach. The blaze started Wednesday afternoon in steep terrain off Highway 128. Nearly 2,000 firefighters were quickly brought in to battle it. By Monday, the fire was 70 percent contained, though it had consumed 6,600 acres.
“It could have been a lot worse,” said CDF fire captain Amy Head. “We were able to stop it. There was a lot of resources coming in and they were coming from all over the place.”
While firefighters were busy bringing the Wragg fire under control, a blaze broke out Thursday afternoon near Kyburz along Highway 50, forcing the closure of the Sierra roadway. By Monday, the Kyburz fire was listed at 75 acres and was 98 percent contained with a line dug out around the blaze.
Richard Minnich, a professor of earth sciences who studies fire ecology at UC Riverside, said Cal Fire is putting out fires too quickly instead of allowing them to burn naturally. As a result, he said, vegetation across the state has grown too thick, creating an environment conducive to fast-burning, extremely destructive fires.
Minnich cited the Lake fire in San Bernardino County, which burned thousands of acres a few weeks ago across local, state and federal jurisdiction, as an example of the sometimes-dire effects of allowing too much fuel for fire.
Much of the area consumed by the Lake fire last burned more than 100 years ago; fires since then were quickly suppressed, Minnich said. “The flames just torched the whole damn thing and wiped it out,” he said of the recent blaze.
“In the long run, when are we going to declare suppression a failure?” he added. “What is it going to take?”
Pimlott said most wildfires in Cal Fire’s jurisdiction burn on private land and often threaten structures. Cal Fire constantly balances the need to reduce fuels with the responsibility to protect life and property, he said. The agency also devotes resources to thinning and pruning vegetation, and regularly conducts prescribed burns to reduce fuels.
“That is absolutely an issue,” he said of overgrown forests. “We are no longer seeing the fire cycles that were here hundreds of years ago.”
The threat of fire around the Sacramento region is constant these days. On Monday afternoon, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire crews descended on the Elverta area to battle a 430-acre grassland blaze that threatened structures and forced the evacuation of nearby neighborhoods. A man suspected of starting the fire was arrested.
Further east, in Placer and Nevada counties, heavy smoke and ash from the Lowell fire covered the foothills. Standing outside the Dutch Flat general store, a group of locals shared tips on evacuation procedures.
“Anything that is insured, I’m just leaving,” said Jim Johnson, an Alta resident.
Johnson, 70, who has lived in the Placer County community for more than 50 years, couldn’t recall another time when he had seriously considered evacuating his home. “You better have your ducks in a row,” he said, referring to the importance of documenting property for an insurance claim.
Stacy Binns, a recent Bay Area transplant, was ready to evacuate but was hoping things would take a turn for the better. More importantly she didn’t want to leave her architectural and interior design firm behind.
“We have clients. They need us,” said Binns.
As the two spoke, specks of ash floated around and heavy Cal Fire rigs rumbled by. A sign on a nearby pole read “thank you firefighters.”