California braces as drought sparks early fire season

In recent months, as California officials started to calculate the fire danger posed by the state’s prolonged and historic drought, they tucked an extra $23 million into the Cal Fire emergency wildfire budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, bringing its total to $209 million.

By July 6 – just days into the fiscal year – the agency already had spent $13.9 million battling two major blazes, and is now bracing for one of the longest and most difficult fire seasons in memory.

“That’s just the first week, and we still have 51 more weeks to go,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We’re not even to the peak of the fire season yet.”

Berlant and top fire officials have been warning for months that the state faces serious peril from wildland fires this year, as the drought – stretching into a third year – has sucked dry much of the state’s brush lands and forests more quickly than in years with more normal precipitation levels.

“We’re not just saying it’s dry, it’s not just a mantra,” he said. “We are seeing the effects now. We are absolutely seeing increased fire activity and numbers.”

In just the first week of the fiscal year, Cal Fire has marshaled roughly 2,500 firefighters from across the state to battle the Monticello fire in Yolo County and the Butts fire in Napa County, which collectively burned 10,800 acres.

State, local and federal firefighters have seen blazes break out exceedingly early in the calendar year, when forests typically would be awash in moisture: an 865-acre blaze in the Lassen National Forest started on Jan. 2; the 333-acre Red Fire began two days later in Humboldt County; and a 1,952-acre wildfire erupted Jan. 16 in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County.

Since Jan. 1, Cal Fire has battled nearly 3,000 fires – about 900 above average for the period – and seen nearly as many acres burn as were recorded in all of 2010, when fires torched 25,438 acres.

After it became evident over the winter that California was facing its worst drought in a generation, officials began taking extraordinary steps to prepare for the fire season. Even as Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in mid-January, Cal Fire was hiring seasonal firefighters in the north state, a move that typically occurs in May.

“Hiring seasonal firefighters in January in Northern California is not only unusual, it’s unheard of,” Berlant said. “But it was needed to meet the dry conditions through this winter.”

Normally, Cal Fire would hire 2,400 seasonal firefighters to handle blazes statewide, but this year increased that staffing to 2,700. The department also took a number of other steps to prepare for a potentially catastrophic fire season, including awarding a $5.4 million contract for a DC-7 air tanker that already has been deployed to the Monticello and Butts fires and augments Cal Fire’s fleet of 50 aircraft.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday sent a letter to Congress seeking a $615 million emergency appropriation request to fund firefighting efforts; California is expected to ask for the bulk of the federal reimbursements, given predictions for where wildland fires are most likely in coming months.

The latest map from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise shows that forecasters believe California, Nevada and Oregon face the gravest threats.

The prediction for California? Most of the state, and virtually all of the northern half, is considered to be above normal for “significant wildland fire potential,” and if those fires materialize they will affect fire agencies ranging from federal and state behemoths to tiny volunteer agencies that already have been pressed into action.

When the Butts fire erupted just after noon on July 1 northwest of Lake Berryessa, the tiny Pope Valley Volunteer Fire Department was among several agencies activated to battle the blaze, and the department’s volunteers worked through a couple of nights protecting homes and advising Cal Fire officials on the tricky winds they were facing, Chief Mike Damonte said.

“Our department is 12 people and, out of those 12, six of us are over 60,” said Damonte, who is 61 and in his third decade as a volunteer firefighter.

“This is the first big fire we’ve had in years,” Damonte said, but the rapid and concentrated response helped keep damage to a minimum, with two homes reported destroyed, along with seven other structures.

Like other agencies pressed into duty for the Butts fire, the Pope Valley department can seek reimbursement for its costs through Cal Fire and, eventually, the federal government. The state won approval of a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency shortly after the blaze erupted to seek up to 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government for firefighting costs associated with the Butts fire.

For now, Cal Fire considers Northern California to be at greater risk for major blazes than the southern half of the state, and has been shifting resources north to be ready when needed. After the Monticello fire broke out the night of July 4 in Yolo County, the department sought help from area agencies. Among them was the Sacramento Fire Department, which dispatched two engines before dawn the next day, as well as crews from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties.

Sacramento’s crews returned from the fire Wednesday. Firefighter Roberto Padilla, the department spokesman, said mutual aid agreements among agencies allow for greater flexibility in shifting resources to wherever they are needed most quickly, as occurred the afternoon of July 4 during a grass fire that burned along the American River Parkway behind Cal Expo.

“Today, we’re helping them; tomorrow, they’re going to come and help us like we experienced with the Cal Expo fire,” Padilla said. “At no time was the city of Sacramento left unstaffed.”

Both the Butts and Monticello fires ended up causing relatively little property damage, but how quickly they exploded has officials concerned about what could happen later in the fire season, when conditions are even drier.

“The last two major fires in our area were perfect examples of the type of fire behavior we have been worried about,” Berlant said. “The Butts fire started with 90-degree temperatures, so they weren’t extreme.

“There was light wind on it, but it still grew at an explosive rate. … We didn’t have strong winds, we didn’t have high temperatures, but we had the fact that the brush and the trees in that area were so dry that the fire was able to really burn at an unheard-of rate. We have been very fortunate.”

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