An unprecedented drought that has parched Northern California has led to one of the most active fire seasons on record, and there is little hope of a wet and cool end in sight, the state’s top fire fighting official said Monday.
In an interview, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said his agency has fought almost 5,000 fires this year, a thousand more than the five-year average. Over the last five years, CalFire has battled an average of 3,951 fires between Jan. 1 and Sept. 20. This year, the agency has fought 4,974 fires throughout the state.
In truth, the dry conditions mean fire season never stops. State fire fighters started the year fighting a 330-acre fire in Humboldt County, one of the wettest counties in the continental United States.
“We’ve been in year-round fire season conditions since April or so of 2013. We haven’t been out of fire season for a year and a half and quite honestly don’t anticipate going out of fire season this year unless we see a significant change in the weather,” Pimlott said.
This week, Pimlott’s agency, better known as CalFire, is battling an 89,000-acre blaze known as the King Fire, east of Sacramento and southwest of Lake Tahoe. The King Fire began 10 days ago; high winds and parched conditions allowed the fire to grow by a stunning 50,000 acres in a single afternoon. Pimlott said it was the fastest single-day growth of a fire in memory. As of Tuesday morning, the fire was 35 percent contained.
And while the leaves begin changing around the rest of the country, the approach of fall means the worst could be yet to come.
“With little rain or precipitation in three years, we are seeing again just explosive conditions. The vegetation is so dry,” Pimlott said. “There is no end in sight. While we’ve had moderate weather conditions this week, we anticipate getting into the Santa Ana Winds season in Southern California, which happens traditionally in the summer months.”
The Santa Ana Winds blow across the deserts of Southern California from Arizona and Nevada at high speeds, which act as fans that can turn a small fire into a large event very quickly.
California has set aside millions of dollars in emergency fund appropriations to fight the blazes. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has proposed saving some of the billions of dollars in state surpluses for a reserve fund, part of which would fund fire fighting suppression and forest management. Pimlott and federal fire fighting officials say managing forests before a fire breaks out is necessary to cut down the number of damaging fires that break out across the West.
“We have to attack fires from all fronts, from not only suppression but from mitigating the impacts from these large and damaging fires by fuels management, good sound forest management, thinning, pruning, all of those things,” Pimlott said.
Nationally, this year’s fire season has been quieter than previous years. The National Interagency Fire Center reports just over 3 million acres have burned in about 40,000 fires. That’s below the 10-year average of 6.6 million acres burned in almost 60,000 fires per year through the middle of September.