Huge increase in California wildfires linked to drought, hot weather

Huge increase in California wildfires linked to drought, hot weather
Firefighters spray water on an apartment complex in Carlsbad. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The fires raging in San Diego County underscore an unprecedented fire season underway in California.

Since the start of this year, Cal Fire has already fought about 1,400 wildfires across the state -- more than twice the average number for this time of year, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

"It starts with the drought," Berlant said. "The grass, the brush and the trees -- not only in San Diego County, really across California -- are really dry."

The drought and increase in fires prompted Cal Fire to keep the same number of firefighters, helicopters and equipment in Southern California usually reserved for fire season in the fall.


"Fire season from 2013 rolled right into 2014 and continues with no end in sight," Berlant said.

The fires were fueled by a dangerous mix of record-high temperatures and strong winds that officials say are unusual for May.

The fires were more proof that California's drought conditions have created a year-round fire season.

"In San Diego County, what we're experiencing over the last several days is high temperatures, low humidity and very high winds. That's a weather pattern that we usually see in the fall," said  Berlant. "All it took was the spark of a fire."

In Orange County, the temperatures at John Wayne Airport hit 105 degrees Wednesday. The average high temperature for this day is 72 degrees. Relative humidity was at 3%, which National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Moede said was also a surprise.

"This is very unusual for the middle of May in Santa Ana," Moede said. "Usually we have a marine layer, the typical May gray."

Officials had this weather forecast about a week in advance. Over the weekend, Cal Fire had begun moving equipment and staff from the Central Valley to Southern California to prepare for fires this week, Berlant said.

There is cool relief in sight.

"Over the weekend, we're going to start seeing a dramatic cooling trend," Moede said. "By early next week, we'll start seeing what's normal temperature-wise. Highs in the 60s and low 70s in the coastal zones."