In drought-plagued Northern California, “dry thunderstorms” — lightning and wind with very little rain — are the main cause of roughly two dozen large blazes that have led to one firefighter’s death and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
The storms, which seem particularly cruel in a region suffering through a historic dry spell, are expected to continue through the weekend, forcing nearly 9,000 firefighters engaged in the battle to keep an eye on the sky as they confront the burning ground around them.
“We’ve had lightning throughout the state,” said Lynne Tomachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “but Southern California has seen a little bit more precipitation, which helps.”
In addition to the large blazes, thousands of lightning strikes on bone-dry landscape have sparked hundreds of smaller fires, Cal Fire officials say.
David Ruhl, 38, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter from South Dakota, was driving alone on Thursday, scouting ways to attack a fire burning in Modoc County, just south of the Oregon border. He became trapped and died after erratic winds whipped the blaze and it suddenly expanded, a Forest Service spokesman said.
The married father of two “left his home state to help protect one of California’s majestic forests,” Brown said. “We extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
Among the significant blazes are the Rocky fire in Lake County, which began Wednesday and had consumed more than 22,500 acres by Saturday, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.
Another, just east of Napa’s wine country, has been burning for a week and scorched more than 12 square miles.
Though most of the fires have been sparked by lightning, weather has not been the only cause. A woman was arrested Thursday on suspicion of causing a 200-acre fire near Groveland, just outside Yosemite National Park. Her bail was set at $100,000.
A bit farther south, near Bass Lake, authorities say a boy playing with a lighter started a fire that led to the evacuation of roughly 200 homes. “We see this all too often,” Tomachoff said. “Curious kids want to see what will happen, but they don’t understand the consequences.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.