Rare lightning storm sets off scattered fires

Times Staff Writer

Northern California continued to suffer the fallout of what’s turning into a historically bad fire season as a weekend lightning barrage set off more than 700 blazes that by Monday had burned nearly 44,000 acres.

A record lack of rainfall, severely dry vegetation and uncharacteristically windy weather have combined to create tinderbox conditions across the northern part of the state.

The spark arrived Saturday as an unusual weather pattern sent dry lightning flashing to the ground -- again and again and again. More than 8,000 lightning strikes touched earth, according to the National Weather Service.


Fire crews, already weary from battling recent blazes that charred more than 80 homes near Chico and claimed dozens more in the Santa Cruz Mountains, were sent scurrying all over Northern California in an attempt to prevent property loss.

By most accounts, the effort was a success. Although 10 coastal homes were lost to flames this weekend north of Watsonville, property loss was relatively low amid fires that burned tens of thousands of acres of grassland, brush and forest.

Early preparation has been the key, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. More crews are on hand this year because of the dry conditions, he said. And with forecasters predicting the possibility of lightning strikes, fire chiefs had shifted more forces from Southern California.

“There’s been some good work done the last couple of days,” Berlant said.

But no one was declaring victory.

“We don’t have a lid on it yet,” said David Shew, a battalion chief with the forestry department. “We’ve got a lot of forces deployed out there, and some of these fires are going to continue growing.”

Even when the latest fires are extinguished, the conditions will remain ripe for more of the same, warned John Juskie, a National Weather Service science officer.

“In historic terms, we’re at record dry levels,” Juskie said.

This spring, just 0.17 of an inch of rain fell in Sacramento, breaking the record of 0.55 on an inch set in 1934, he said.

The lack of precipitation has left outback and urban vegetation ready to burn. In most areas of the north, the grasses and brush are as dry now as they normally would be in October. Moisture content is less than 5%, compared with about 20% normally for this time of year, fire officials say.

In addition, “no one has seen a springtime like this with the winds,” Juskie said.

Breezes, which can fan a small fire into an inferno, have been whipping for days at a time, with velocities reaching 20 mph or more. They’ve been caused by a clash between high-pressure storm systems moving through the Pacific Northwest and low pressure hovering over the Southwest. Northern California sits between the two pinwheeling systems, which have caused persistent winds.

The good news, Juskie said, is that the winds should die down with summer’s onset.

The bad news is that “we’re still hot and dry,” he said. “So we’re not out of the woods. Even without the wind, we’re bone dry.”

As for the lightning, Juskie said it was unusual because of the vast territory it hit.

Though lightning strikes in the Sierra most summers, recent conditions sent thunderstorms reeling in from the Pacific across most of Northern California, from Monterey County up through Mendocino and inland into the far northern mountains of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where more than 60 blazes burned in the backwoods.

In Mendocino County, 131 fires had burned more than 8,900 acres, with 50 rural homes still potentially in harm’s way. Among the most threatening of the fires was a swath straddling Napa and Solano counties northwest of Fairfield. Nearly 4,100 acres had burned and 150 homes remained threatened at nightfall Monday.

With dozens of fires still burning, air quality suffered all over Northern California.

In Sacramento, smoke barreled down the valley from the various fires and left the capital city shrouded in a particulate plume. Regulators declared the air unhealthy because of the smoke, with the air quality index surging as high as 166 in Roseville and 157 in downtown Sacramento.