The Heat Is Online

California Heat Triggers 400 Wildfires

California firefighters battle more than 1,400 blazes


The Associated Press,  June 30, 2008


SAN FRANCISCO - More than a thousand wildfires -- including a massive, stubborn blaze in the Big Sur region -- were burning early Monday in Northern California and there was no relief in sight for weary firefighters.


Fire crews inched closer to getting some of the largest of 1,420 blazes surrounded, according to the state Office of Emergency Services. Some 364,600 acres -- or almost 570 square miles -- have burned.


But a "red flag warning" -- meaning the most extreme fire danger -- was still in effect for Northern California until 8 a.m. EDT Monday. And the weather in the coming days and months isn't expected to help efforts.


Lower-than-average rainfall and record levels of parched vegetation likely mean a long, fiery summer throughout northern California, according to the Forest Service's state fire outlook released last week.


The fires burning now were mostly sparked by lightning storms that were unusually intense for so early in the season. But summer storms would probably be even fiercer, according to the Forest Service.

"Our most widespread and/or critical lightning events often occur in late July or August, and we have no reason to deviate from that," the agency's report said.


The blazes have destroyed more than 50 buildings, said Gregory Renick, state emergency services spokesman. More than 19,500 firefighters are battling the blazes and 926 helicopters have been used.


A lightning-sparked wildfire in the Big Sur region of the Los Padres National Forest has burned 42 square miles and destroyed 16 homes. The blaze, which was only 3 percent contained late Sunday, has forced the closure of a 12-mile stretch of coastal Highway 1 and driven away visitors at the peak of the tourist season.


Air quality districts from Bakersfield to Redding issued health advisories through the weekend, urging residents to stay indoors to limit exposure to the smoky air.


A fire in the Piute Mountain area has burned more than 1,000 acres, causing some small communities to be evacuated, most vacation homes, The Bakersfield Californian reported Monday.


On Saturday, President Bush issued an emergency declaration for California and ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts.


But California emergency officials said state and local governments would also need federal financing to cover the costs of fighting so many fires this early in the year.


Federal aid now includes four Marine Corps helicopters, remote sensing of the fires by NASA, federal firefighters, and the activation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


In Arizona, residents of a remote mountain community north of Phoenix were evacuated Sunday as a 500-acre wildfire moved toward town, but a late afternoon wind shift spared all but one structure in Crown King. Flames came within a mile of town.


The surrounding ponderosa pine forest has a large number of dead trees, victims of a bark beetle infestation that has killed millions of trees across the West in recent years. About 120 people were evacuated from the town of about 400 scattered homes and summer cabins, said Debbie Maneely, a spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest.


Evacuation orders were lifted Sunday morning for residents of Tajique in central New Mexico, where a blaze has destroyed six homes. The fire, sparked by lightning June 23, was more than 60 percent contained.


In Guffey, Colo., about 40 miles west of Colorado Springs, most of the 100 residents who fled a 1,115-acre lightning-started wildfire were allowed back home Sunday. Final evacuation orders were expected to be lifted Monday morning.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


Lightning sparks 800-plus fires in California  


Rare 'dry lightning' storms brought little rain but plenty of sparks


The Associated Press,  June. 25, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - In less than a day, an electrical storm unleashed nearly 8,000 lightning strikes that set more than 800 wildfires across Northern California  a rare example of "dry lightning" that brought little or no rain but plenty of sparks to the state's parched forests and grasslands.

The weekend storm was unusual not only because it generated so many lightning strikes over a large geographical area, but also because it struck so early in the season and moved in from the Pacific Ocean. Such storms usually don't arrive until late July or August and typically form southeast of California.

"You're looking at a pattern that's climatologically rare. We typically don't see this happen at this time of summer," said John Juskie, a science officer with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. "To see 8,000, that's way up there on the scale."

Thousands of firefighters battled the blazes Tuesday from the ground and air. The lightning-caused fires have scorched tens of thousands of acres and forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes, though few buildings have been destroyed, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It's just extremely, extremely dry," Berlant said. "That means any little spark has the potential to cause a large fire. The public needs to be extra cautious because we don't need any additional wildfires."

Despite the many lightning strikes that hit the ground on Saturday alone, the weekend thunderstorm brought little precipitation because the rain evaporated in hot, dry layers of the atmosphere before it hit the ground, Juskie said.

The lightning storm struck California when the state was experiencing one of its driest years on record. Earlier this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought and directed agencies to speed up water deliveries to drought-stricken areas. Many communities have adopted strict conservation measures.

From San Francisco to Los Angeles, cities have only seen a tiny fraction of the rainfall they normally receive at this point in a typical year. In the Central Valley, the cities of Sacramento, Modesto, Stockton and Red Bluff have recorded their driest March-to-May periods since at least the 19th century, according to the weather service.

"A combination of lightning and very dry fuels will spark fires," said Mark Strobin, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey. "It doesn't take much nowadays especially with how dry it is."

Unusual fire season

Even before the lightning struck, California had already seen an unusually large number of destructive wildfires with about 140 square miles burned, compared to about 66 square miles during the same period last year, according to state officials. The fire season typically does not peak until late summer or early fall.

"This doesn't bode well for the fire season," said Ken Clark, a meteorologist in Southern California with "We're not even into the meat of the fire season at this point, and the brush is extremely dry. It's not going to get any better, it's going to get worse."

The weekend's lightning storm combined with extremely dry conditions to spark about 840 separate blazes from the Big Sur area of Monterey County to Del Norte County on the Oregon border.

By contrast, 574 lightning-sparked fires blackened about 86 square miles in Northern California in all of 2007.

One of the state's worst wildfire years occurred in 2001, when more than 2,000 lightning-caused blazes burned about 289 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Hardest hit

Areas hit the hardest by the weekend thunderstorm include Mendocino County, where 131 fires have burned more than 20 square miles and threatened about 500 homes; Butte County, where 25 fires have burned about 6 square miles and threatened 400 homes; and the Shasta-Trinity Forest, where more than 150 fires have burned about 12 square miles and threatened 200 homes.

The biggest fire burning in California started more than two weeks ago in a remote region of the Los Padres National Forest in southern Monterey County. That 91-square-mile blaze was about two-third contained Tuesday.

The weather service has said more dry thunderstorms could strike Northern California later this week.

Several wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, where about 150 children were evacuated from a youth camp southeast of Albuquerque on Tuesday as a blaze in the Manzano Mountains closed in.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


California Fights 400 Fires, Bakes in Heat Wave, June 24, 2008


LOS ANGELES - Firefighters worked to contain some 400 wildfires burning across Northern California on Sunday as the state baked under a fourth day of an early summer heat wave that has strained the power grid and left residents wilted.


One structure was destroyed and 150 homes were evacuated near Fairfield, 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Sacramento, in the path of the worst of the fires, which blackened more than 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) in wine-producing Napa County.


"The weather is, of course, very hot and dry here, and this fire quickly rolled up into some extremely steep terrain and became inaccessible. We're having trouble establishing control lines," said Battalion Chief David Shew of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.


He said the blaze was about 10 percent contained as of Sunday morning and that crews were hoping for a break as triple-digit temperatures began to ease and cooler off-shore breezes returned.

Most of the hundreds of fires scattered across Northern California were started by dry lightning strikes during thunder storms that moved across the state on Friday.


"Those evil clouds are wreaking havoc across the state," Mike Jarvis, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said of the dry lightning. "There's no moisture in them and when they hit it's not like they put themselves out."


In a 24-hour period beginning on Friday, some some 5,000 to 6,000 dry lightning strikes were recorded across the region, leaving crews scrambling to keep up with spot fires.


"We do have significant numbers of fires that are completely unstaffed as of yet," Shew said. "We don't have sufficient resources to send to every one of them, so they'll just have to pick them up as we can."


California has cooked for four days under a severe heat wave that has drive temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) across much of the state.


Beaches were swamped with Californians seeking relief, and in Southern California power was lost to some communities as the power grid was strained by residents turning up air conditioners and fans to beat the heat.