Dry conditions and high winds have made the Clayton fire nearly impossible to control. “The winds really kicked up, and the fire crossed over tentative lines in place [to slow its advance] and started impacting a whole new area,” Suzie Blankenship, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Monday. “Once it creates that momentum, it really moves. They had a good handle on it. We had this fire contained at 5 percent Saturday. But today it’s still 5 percent. It tells you that the fire keeps moving and moving and moving in different directions.”
The fire has added to a summer of misery in California. The state has nine active wildfires as large as 25 acres or more, including the Clayton fire that forced nearly 1,500 residents to flee their homes after it erupted Saturday in dry conditions created by the state’s extreme drought. On Sunday the blaze doubled in size.
More than 3,800 fires have scorched over 112,900 acres of state land since January. That’s 20 percent more fires than at this point last year, and well above the state’s five-year average of 3,200 fires and 85,900 acres for the same time span. Wildfires are also charring federally owned land in the state. Add those in, and the number of fires shoots to 4,600 with more than 306,000 acres burnt in 2016, according to Cal Fire.
As of Monday, the federal National Interagency Fire Center showed California leading the fire-prone West in the number, size and intensity of wildfires. In June, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that 26 million trees had died in six counties across 760,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada mountains that run along California’s spine — bringing the number of dead trees, which are fuel for fire, to 66 million during four years of drought. The service blames heat, dryness and a greedy little beetle for the devastation.
Major wildfires are raging across much of the West, too, including in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming and Texas.
Last year, fires stretched up and down the Pacific Coast and burned more than 5 million acres in Alaska. The nationwide total of 10 million acres burned was historic, according to the Forest Service, the Agriculture Department division charged with fighting fires. Agriculture officials have been warning of fire seasons that start in March instead of June and last through December instead of ending in September. But they have been unable to convince Congress to change what they call an outdated funding formula for calculating the Forest Service’s annual firefighting budget.
Others lament that governments allow homes to be built in fire plains, areas where wildfires erupt from lightning strikes, careless campsites or sparks flying from motorized equipment. Lightning ignited many of last year’s Alaska fires, and a campfire ignited one of this year’s fires in California.
The Clayton fire, near the community of Lower Lake about 100 miles north of San Francisco, remains under investigation. Multiple homes and businesses have burned, representing about $10.5 million in damage. Although no residents or firefighters have been injured, nerves are on edge. Many of the people evacuated are huddling at a local high school, church and casino.
“The fire fuels — grass, brush and limbs — are extremely dry,” Blankenship said. “The fire is heating them up as it moves forward. They could burst under that heat. You have embers created that are throwing sparks from 10 feet to a mile that start another wildfire. The fire is creating more fire as it moves forward.”
Fires in that part of northern California are a serious matter. Last year alone, 213,000 acres there burned in three wildfires. The most serious, the Valley fire in Lake County, caused three deaths and destroyed nearly 1,500 buildings.
The county has “been impacted beyond historical numbers,” Blankenship said. She called the Valley fire phenomenal “just because of the conditions,” and sympathized with the danger residents seem to face every year.
“Here we are, Lake County again,” she said.