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State’s Wildfire Season on the Mild Side So Far

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s no comfort to the people of Weaverville, where a fire charred 1,680 acres and destroyed 13 residences last week, but 2001 has been a curiously mild year for California wildfires. So far.

Since January, fire has consumed 45,000 acres of wild land statewide, 10,000 fewer than at this time last year--and 27,000 fewer than the five-year average for late August.

Those numbers look even better considering that an estimated 400 more fires were ignited this year in California than during the same period last year.

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Roughly halfway through the fire season, some authorities are crediting, among other things, an entity not often celebrated for enlightened action: Congress.

The nearly $2.9 billion that lawmakers set aside last year for the first National Fire Plan has bought new equipment, staffed anemic command centers and put thousands to work clearing incendiary underbrush and combating blazes. The new money boosted California fire efforts by more than $280 million.

“We got our budget augmented and put another firefighter on each of our 180 engines,” said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. “We think some of the reason the [burned] acreage is down this year is that we’re having more success attacking fires.”

David W. Smith, a vice president for the Society of American Foresters, agreed that the cash infusion is one likely reason behind the year’s lower-than-expected fire toll. Nationwide, 4 million fewer acres have burned this year than in the same period last year.

“The money has, in fact, gotten into place and is, in fact, being used for the purpose in which it was intended,” said Smith, also a retired forestry professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The Clinton administration developed the fire initiative in response to exceptional damage nationwide last year, when more than 8 million acres went up in smoke, more than twice the 10-year average. The largest fires hit Montana, Idaho, Arkansas, Washington and Wyoming.

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By most accounts, 2001 was going to be a nasty year for fires in California--and still could be, authorities warn.

In the state’s northern reaches, winter rain and snow dipped to 50-year lows, while springtime temperatures reached unusual highs. In southern areas, the picture was more complex, with parts of Los Angeles County getting more than the usual winter precipitation but other areas getting less.

Those conditions and others prompted the state Forestry Department earlier this year to predict “very high to extreme fire behavior with rapid rates of spread”--a bull’s-eye description of the four major fires burning in California last week.

But those fires, though spectacular, have not offset the lower-than-usual total of acres burned to date. A major factor, climatologists say, has been cooler-than-average temperatures this summer in central and southern portions of the state, accompanied by higher humidity and lighter winds.

Also important, so many acres went up in flames in 2000 that large areas were cleared of the tinder-dry forest undergrowth that fuels major conflagrations. In fact, last year’s fires in California destroyed the most wild acreage since 1988.

“The fires this year might be down just because of last year’s fire season,” said Scott Sticha, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates fire efforts by the Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

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David Sapsis, a wildfire scientist with the California Fire Resource Assessment Program, isn’t convinced that this year’s decrease in burned acreage is statistically meaningful. And he said a rash of lightning strikes in Northern California in July accounts for the high number of fires.

Moreover, Sapsis and other experts point out that the second half of fire season in California, when hot winds often rake the rain-starved forests and grasslands, is generally the worst.

“We’ve still got all of September and October to get through,” he said.

Around the mountain hamlet of Weaverville, where 1,450 men and women battled for days to contain the blaze, locals have long debated fire control measures.

“We tell everyone it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ there’s going to be a fire,” said Pat Frost, manager of the Trinity County Resource Conservation District.

It was rotten luck, he said, that the fire started where it did along California 299, apparently touched off by a spark thrown from a vehicle. Several miles to the east, he said, crews had just finished clearing debris along the highway, specifically to reduce the likelihood that an errant spark would spawn a fiery disaster.

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