California fires expected to continue

September 23, 2014

An unprecedented drought that has parched Northern California has led to one of the most active fire seasons on record in the U.S. state and there is little hope of a wet and cool end in sight.

In an interview, Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said his agency has fought almost 5,000 fires this year, a thousand more than the five-year average. Over the past five years, the agency 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 firefighters 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 it 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.

By Tuesday, the King fire was about 35 percent contained, nearly double the containment level reported a day earlier. But weather forecasts hinted at possible problems in the coming days, pointing to a combination of wind gusts, warm temperatures and low humidity that could “provide an environment for rapid fire spread,” the National Weather Service said.

And the approach of fall means the worst could be yet to come in the rest of the country.

“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 from Arizona and Nevada at high speeds, which act as fans that can turn a small fire into a large event very quickly.

Washington Post staff writer Mark Berman contributed to this report.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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