Californians are preparing for a prolonged season of wildfires after an unusually dry winter that left millions of acres of scrub brush in the most populous U.S. state primed to burn.
The tinder-box conditions have sparked more than 840 wildfires since January, about 320 more than the five-year average, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department, known as Cal Fire. A fast-moving fire in Ventura County over the weekend charred an area the size of San Francisco, forced the evacuation of a college with 4,900 students and threatened 4,000 homes northwest of Los Angeles.
Wind-swept fires across the state following similarly dry winter months in 2008 burned more than 1.2 million acres and killed 13 firefighters, according to Cal Fire. In 2007, firestorms swept through Southern California, destroying 1,500 homes, displacing almost a million residents and killing 17.
“It’s pretty shocking that we are having fires of this size already,” said Bill Stewart, a professor of forest economics and policy with the University of California at Berkeley. “It could be a big one. I wouldn’t be surprised if we surpassed 2007.”
The California Department of Water Resources announced May 2 that the state’s snowpack was 17 percent of normal. January through March was the driest first quarter on record for the state, according to the California State Meteorologist.
The dangerous conditions come as automatic federal budget cuts called sequestration means the U.S. Forest Service has to cut its budget even though the agency expects this year’s fire season to match and or possibly exceed last year, when 9.3 million acres burned. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has said the cuts mean his agency will hire about 500 fewer seasonal firefighters than normal.
Governor Jerry Brown in 2011 signed a budget that reduced the number of firefighters assigned to each engine to three from four as a way save money and help erase what was then a $10 billion deficit. The move restored staffing levels on each truck to where they were before October 2003, when 14 separate massive firestorms scorched more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 homes and killed 24 people.
Brown told a panel of federal judges May 2 that one way he could comply with their order to reduce overcrowding in state prisons was to move 1,300 inmates to camps where they can be deployed to help on the fire lines. California currently has about 3,700 inmates in such camps.
More than 1,800 firefighters over the weekend battled a blaze known as the Springs Fire south of Camarillo in Ventura County. Strong Santa Ana winds spread the blaze to more than 43 square miles (111 square kilometers) before crews were able to stall its growth yesterday.
The fire, now mostly under control, had forced officials to evacuate California State University, Channel Islands, and close down portions of State Route 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway. While no homes were destroyed, 15 were damaged, the Ventura Fire Department said.
Stewart said that even with the dry conditions, how long and often strong winds blow through the summer months will determine whether the state suffers the kinds of massive fires that struck in 2007 and 2008.
“It’s the high winds that really drives up the acreage and pushes the fires up into subdivisions,” he said. “We know we have dry fuel on the ground, we know it’s going to be warm, but what we don’t know yet is how often we are going to have winds.”
The National Weather Service had issued red flag warnings for most of Los Angeles and Ventura counties over the weekend because of the dry Santa Ana winds, which blow desert air toward the Pacific coast. The warning alerts area residents and firefighters that conditions are ideal for rapidly spreading wildfires.
Cal Fire has 4,700 full-time firefighters and foresters who are aided by another 8,700 seasonal and local workers. The state also uses prisoners to fight wildfires. The Corrections Department said 82 crews, consisting of 1,093 inmates and 97 guards, were assisting in battling 14 fires across the state.
“We have already seen a big increase in the number of fires that normally occur at this time of year, and summer hasn’t yet arrived,” Mark Ghilarducci, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement.
Large wildfires aren’t limited to California. Colorado suffered its most destructive fire season last year, with dozens of blazes fueled by drought-ravaged grass and beetle-killed timber. Flames destroyed at least 600 homes and charred more than 116,000 acres. Damage was estimated at more than $450 million, with the Waldo Canyon blaze, which consumed entire neighborhoods in the foothills around Colorado Springs, becoming the most expensive fire in state history.
More than 153,000 acres have burned across the U.S. this year, though that’s half how much were scorched during the same period in 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center out of Boise, Idaho.
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