Blazes ignite fire worries

Fire agencies are bracing for a dry, busy season

BUCKET BRIGADE Dozens of curious onlookers gathered near California Park as CDF helicopters dipped into a reservoir there for water to douse a blazing burning along Bruce Road.

BUCKET BRIGADE Dozens of curious onlookers gathered near California Park as CDF helicopters dipped into a reservoir there for water to douse a blazing burning along Bruce Road.

Photo by Tom Angel

Up in smoke: The worst year on record for fires fought by the California Department of Forestry was 1992, when 7,939 fires burned almost 200,000 acres and caused more than $170 million in damage. An “average” year sees about 6,400 fires burning up about 150,000 acres and causing almost $75 million in damage.

More than 200 firefighters were called out the weekend of June 8 to battle the first major blaze of the fire season, a Paradise wildfire that temporarily closed the Skyway and scorched some 2,000 acres of grasslands.

Fire officials said they were lucky that no injuries occurred as a direct result of the fire—although a motorist was killed in a crash Sunday while firefighters were on the scene near Paradise—as high winds and dry weather fanned the flames between 2 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday. It took the better part of two days, along with at least seven aircraft and a fleet of fire engines, to douse the fast-moving fire.

Investigators have determined that the fire started underneath some power lines near Rocky Bluff Drive off the Skyway. Driven by winds gusting up to 35 mph, the fire traveled quickly, forcing the voluntary evacuation of several residents on Williams Road. No structures were reported damaged.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but the abrupt opening of the season has officials very worried about this summer’s potential for devastating wildfires.

“It looks like it will probably be a hot and dry summer,” CDF spokesman Joe Tapia said. “It’s shaping up to be a very dry and very busy season.”

Even before the fire, CDF statistics comparing this year to 2001 show that not only have there been more fires this year, but the fires have also been more destructive. In the first half of 2001, for example, 1,360 fires burned 5,393 acres. This year, 1,510 fires have ravaged almost 14,000 acres, an increase in acreage burned that approaches 200 percent. Fires in 2002 have also been slightly worse in both number and severity than the CDF’s five-year average for this time of the year.

Mike Smith, a fire weather forecaster for the National Weather Service, said it was impossible to predict how bad this summer’s fire season could be. Though the state has received an average amount of rainfall, most of it fell in early winter, which could have caused vegetation to grow taller, thus leaving more wildfire fuel when the plants inevitably dry out in hotter weather. On the other hand, Smith said, less winter rain means dryer conditions overall, which also could help fuel fires.

In other words, Smith said, “Every fire season in California can be a bad one. It really just depends on the day-to-day, week-to-week fire weather.”

Across the West, especially in Colorado and Southern California, drought conditions have already spawned numerous fires that have destroyed thousands of acres of wild lands and forced tens of thousands from their homes. While summer wildfires are relatively common, it is rare to have so many fires occur over such a large area so early in the season.

The worst fires in recent memory in Butte County have all happened at the end of the season, when grass and trees are at their driest. Last year’s Poe fire, which the CDF rates as one its five most destructive fires of the year, was sparked in September 2001 when a dead tree fell on some PG&E power lines. In that blaze, 133 structures were lost and more than 8,300 acres were burned near the community of Yankee Hill. The year before that, a September fire near Concow claimed 1,835 acres and destroyed 16 buildings.

Fire officials say there are several steps homeowners can take to help protect their homes from fires. In some cases, they say, clearing out brush and vegetation from within 30 feet of one’s home—100 feet if you live on a hill—can mean the difference between a house and a pile of ashes. Replacing a shake roof with metal or asphalt composition shingles is also a good idea, as is planning one’s garden to incorporate water-retaining shrubs and ground cover.

In the accident Sunday, 29-year-old Edward Embree of Paradise was driving on the Skyway toward Paradise when he pulled over, either to make room for a fire vehicle or to watch firefighters at work. His Ford Mustang was rear-ended by a Ford Taurus whose driver apparently was distracted. The Mustang burst into flames, killing Embree and seriously burning a female passenger. The driver of the Taurus suffered moderate injuries, according to police reports.