Alpine County fire grows to more than 16,000 acres; officials warn of drought conditions

More than 500 firefighters worked Tuesday to contain a blaze that has charred more than 16,500 acres of Alpine County timberland.

The Washington fire grew by 1,500 acres overnight but spared the county seat of Markleeville. The blaze, sparked by a lightning strike on Friday, is burning about 10 miles south of the town and had zero percent containment as of late Tuesday afternoon. Officials do not have an estimated time for containment because of area winds and the unsafe conditions for firefighters.

Fire crews focused efforts on protecting Markleeville, which has about 200 residents. Heavy smoke was reported in the area, fire officials said. Residents have been ordered to prepare for evacuations.

Highways 4 and 89 remain closed in the Monitor Pass area, according to U.S Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City, Nev., District Office. Several campgrounds along Highway 4 to the north end of Markleeville have been evacuated.

Across the state, firefighters are facing an uphill battle to contain wildfires as drought conditions worsen. Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are warning of a prolonged fire season.

The state agency has responded to 2,500 wildfires to date, said spokesman Daniel Berlant, up from an average of 1,600.

“Even though we’re at the first week of summer, we’re well into fire season,” Berlant said. “We’re easily several months ahead of schedule in terms of how dry and how the fires are behaving.”

Statewide, a total of 4,000 firefighters are battling eight wildfires, according to Cal Fire.

Berlant said Cal Fire moved up hiring for the season several months because of the drought. The agency, which annually hires about 2,500 seasonal firefighters, began staffing in January.

“Nowhere in California has been immune to these fires,” Berlant said, noting that 95 percent of wildfires are caused by people.