Northern California wildfire races through bone-dry landscape

A member of an inmate firefighting crew works on the Bully fire on July 11.
(Greg Barnette / Associated Press)

A combination of hot temperatures, strong winds and bone-dry timber are challenging crews battling a wildfire in Northern California in a way not seen in years, state officials said Tuesday.

The Bully fire in Shasta County grew by 2,000 acres in a day, burning an estimated 6,400 acres since it ignited Friday afternoon when an alleged marijuana farmer’s truck drove over dry grass. It was 20% contained Tuesday.

Authorities arrested Freddie Alexander Smoke III, 37, for allegedly starting the blaze. Crews have struggled to slow the fire’s spread amid the worst drought in California’s history, triple-digit temperatures and strong winds.


“The conditions have not been in our favor,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

He said crews saw “extreme” fire behavior over the weekend that pushed the flames past a containment line, where it quickly chewed through new fuel.

“In a typical fire, we would have two types of conditions -- weather and terrain. The fire has both of those working against us,” Berlant said. “Now you add extremely drought-stressed brush and trees and it’s like a triple-negative.”

The blaze has destroyed 18 structures, including one home, injured 17 people and is threatening 68 homes. Some residents have been evacuated from the fire’s path.

“It’s absolutely allowing the fire to burn much more aggressively and faster,” Berlant said. “The brush and trees are burning as if they’re dead.”

In an update Tuesday morning, Cal Fire officials said the fire’s remoteness has made it a challenge to attack head-on. With a storm system expected to move over the state Tuesday, Berlant said more remote ignitions could be on the way.


The National Weather Service forecast a thunder storm system to cover much of the state. While it’s expected to bring some rain to the Southern region, Berlant said that’s not the case in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

“We’re bracing for possible dry lightning strikes through the day,” Berlant said.

Cal Fire has increased its staffing and posted lookouts along remote mountain areas to watch for developing fires. The agency may even fly its aircraft on reconnaissance missions through the week to spot any new blazes.

“One concern is that it may sit there and smolder and doesn’t put off any smoke to cause concern,” Berlant said. “Then the warm temperatures and the sun will allow that to increase and it will take off.”

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