Fall is finally here and the weather is cooler, but Cal Fire is warning people not to light up their outdoor fire pits just yet.
High winds expected throughout Northern and Southern California over the weekend have fire officials staffing up units statewide in preparation for wind-driven blazes and urging people to remain cautious during outdoor activities.
“Basically, the biggest caution for us is to tell people to be very careful when they’re working or recreating outside, especially with mowing lawns or doing some brush clearing with electrical equipment,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Friday. “Even though things have cooled down, if you spark a fire these winds are going to carry fire very, very fast.”
The National Weather Service issued an “urgent fire weather message” warning that gusting winds are expected from 11 p.m. Sunday through 5 a.m. Tuesday in Northern California and that “any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.”
The windy conditions, which may include gusts of up to 40 mph, will be coupled with low humidity and prompted forecasters to issue a red flag warning for a swath of north-central California from above Redding to south of San Jose.
The conditions are not unusual for this time of year, when Santa Ana winds in Southern California press in from the deserts and sweep down hillsides. Winds also are typical this time of the year in the north state.
After years of warning Californians to be wary all year round because the drought had left forests and brushlands tinder dry, officials are concerned that residents may think the danger has passed because of last year’s heavy rainfall.
“People think things are improving,” Tolmachoff said, but the state has not seen any appreciable rainfall yet this year to lessen the fire danger. “Honestly, it really comes down to what Mother Nature throws at us. If we start seeing some significant rain, we’ll have an opportunity to see things improve.”
Fire officials have been warning all year that the end of the drought did not necessarily reduce fire danger. The wet winter nourished a huge amount of grass and brush that helped fuel a large increase this year in the number of fires statewide over previous years.
So far in 2017, Cal Fire says 5,663 fires have burned 232,936 acres, compared to 4,223 blazes for the same period in 2016 that burned 243,597 acres. The total this year so far also exceeds the five-year average of 4,191 fires and 200,224 acres burned, the agency said.
Although some of the most destructive fires in recent years came during the drought, the state still was hit hard this year by some blazes, including the Detwiler Fire in July that scorched nearly 82,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes near Yosemite National Park.
In early July, the Wall Fire near Oroville burned 6,000 acres and destroyed 41 homes. And in late August, another Butte County blaze, the Ponderosa fire, burned more than 4,000 acres and destroyed 32 homes.