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Napa blaze underscores fire danger in drought-stricken California

In the first six months of the year, Cal Fire has battled more than 2,715 fires – nearly 900 more than the average tally – and the worst is yet to come.

With California in the grip of a historic drought, grasslands, shrubs and trees are as dry now as they would be late in the fire season, and even the slightest spark can create an out-of-control blaze.

“We have continued all year long to see a significant increase in the number of wildfires that we’ve responded to,” Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Wednesday. “What we’re experiencing right now are conditions that we would see in late August or early September. And as we go further into summer, conditions are only going to get drier.”

The latest evidence of the danger California faces erupted shortly after noon Tuesday in Napa County with the Butts fire, a 3,800-acre blaze that by Wednesday had forced the evacuation of nearly 200 homes and threatened as many as 380 structures.

Fire officials said the blaze, which was burning northwest of Lake Berryessa and headed northeast toward Snell Peak near Napa County’s Pope Valley, had damaged or destroyed five structures, including one home. No injuries were reported from the fire, which was 30 percent contained after 1,000 firefighters spent Tuesday night and Wednesday attacking it with a dozen bulldozers, 57 fire engines, helicopters and a plane swooping overhead to battle the flames.

“This fire is the classic example of the impact the drought had,” Berlant said. “The weather conditions are not as strong as we have seen, temperatures are relatively average in the 90s, humidity is normal, and the winds are relatively light.

“But this fire still burned at an explosive rate (Tuesday) afternoon. The likelihood of seeing more fires like this that spread because of how dry it is is very high.”

Mark Amador, an assistant fire chief for the Pope Valley Volunteer Fire Department, was one of the firefighters who worked through the night Tuesday setting fire breaks to halt the advance of the flames.

“I was on the line all night,” Amador said Wednesday at the Pope Valley firehouse. “We’re making a good dent in the fire. Thing is, the vegetation is so dry, but we’re making headway.”

Residents of the affected area were told by sheriff’s officials and firefighters to get out Tuesday afternoon, and they were not expected to be allowed to return before Thursday.

Residents were sent to two area schools, including one at Pope Valley Union Elementary School where Benjamin Casas spent Wednesday trying to keep tabs on the fire and its impact on his Berryessa Estates home.

Casas, an information technology director at the school, said he was on his way home Tuesday from St. Helena after getting a call from a friend about the fire. When he arrived in the area, he said the streets were abandoned and sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were telling people to get out.

“That’s when it got a little serious,” Casas said. “I got a little frightened when I saw the fire coming.”

Casas said he spent the night with family in an area not affected by the fire. He added that firefighters indicated the neighborhood had been spared in part because residents had done a good job of clearing brush and establishing defensible spaces around their homes.

At the other evacuation center at Middletown High School, about 30 people spent the night Tuesday and another 30 were expected Wednesday night, Red Cross spokeswoman Virginia Hart said.

“We’re here as long as someone will need us to be here,” she said Wednesday afternoon as evacuees gathered in the school gym or in the parking lot with their pets.

Pope Valley resident Lou Leet, 57, was sitting under some misters cooling off after a night spent in the lot on a cot with her husky Dickens sleeping next to her on a leash.

Leet had managed to get Dickens evacuated, but had not been able to get her five cats from her home.

“They have water, but it’s hot,” she said. “I’m really anxious to get up there and see that they’re OK ...

“God, I hope we get home tomorrow.”

Firefighters were helped in the initial stages of the fight by increased humidity and cooler temperatures, but by Wednesday afternoon some wind gusts picked up and appeared to be aiding the spread of the blaze along a ridge near Butts Canyon Road. The fire, which had been estimated at 3,200 acres early Wednesday, had grown to 3,800 acres later in the day.

Haze and smoke from the blaze drifted into the Sacramento area and spread south of Stockton and nearly as far north as Chico, according to the National Weather Service.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Emergency Services said the state secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow firefighting agencies to seek up to 75 percent reimbursement of the costs of the firefight.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Officials have been so concerned about the potential for such fires that Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott issued an order last month suspending open burning across 31 million acres of California land effective July 1. The order suspends permits for open burning by residents, industry and management of forests, although campfires still are allowed in certain campsites.

Berlant stressed that all Californians need to be especially careful in the outdoors, particularly with the July 4 holiday weekend approaching.

“We are very concerned going into this weekend as more people are outside recreating, barbecuing and, especially, using fireworks,” he said. “With just how dry it is, it doesn’t take much for a fire to ignite and to quickly spread.”

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