Firefighters in Stalemate Against Calif. Wildfires

July 1, 2008

Firefighters have battled more than a thousand wildfires burning throughout Northern California to a stalemate, but forecasters said dangerous fire conditions will not relent anytime soon.

No new major fires had broken out as of Sunday, June 29, 2008, as fire crews inched closer to getting some of the largest blazes surrounded, according to the state Office of Emergency Services.

But a “red flag warning” — meaning the most extreme fire danger — was still in effect for Northern California until Monday. And the coming days and months are expected to bring little relief.

Forecasters predicted more thunderstorms and dry lightning through the weekend, similar to the ones that ignited hundreds of fires a week ago. Meanwhile, a U.S. Forest Service report said the weather would get even drier and hotter as fire season headed toward its traditional peak in late July and August.

Lower-than-average rainfall and record levels of vegetation parched by a spring drought likely mean a long, fiery summer throughout Northern California, according to the Forest Service’s state fire outlook.

Already the fires now burning will take weeks to months to fully bring under control, the report said.

Those blazes were mostly sparked by lightning storms that were unusually intense for so early in the season. But summer storms would likely grow even more fierce, according to the Forest Service.

“Our most widespread and/or critical lightning events often occur in late July or August, and we have no reason to deviate from that,” the agency’s report said.

The blazes have scorched more than 556 square miles and destroyed more than 50 buildings, said state emergency services spokesman Gregory Renick.

Air quality districts from Bakersfield to Redding issued health advisories urging residents to stay indoors to limit their exposure to the smoky air. Air pollution readings in Northern California are two to 10 times the federal standard for clean air, state air regulators said.

President Bush issued an emergency declaration for California and ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts in Butte, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, and Trinity.

But California emergency officials said that state and local governments would also need federal financing to cover the costs of fighting so many fires this early in the year.

Federal aid now includes four Marine Corps helicopters, remote sensing of the fires by NASA, federal firefighters, and the activation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

More than 18,000 firefighters, nearly 1,700 fire engines and bulldozers, and more than 80 helicopters and aircraft were fighting more than 1,000 active fires as of June 29, Renick said. The blazes threatened more than 10,000 buildings across the region, he said.

In hard-hit Butte County, 31 fires have burned 25 square miles and threatened 1,200 homes. Though the blazes had spread since Saturday, firefighters increased containment to 20 percent.

More than 120 fires had scorched nearly 56 square miles in Mendocino County, and 900 homes were still under threat as of June 29. Overall containment on the fires had grown to 20 percent by that date, up from just 5 percent the day before. In Shasta-Trinity counties, fires that had burned nearly 69 square miles and threatened 230 homes were just 10 percent contained.

A wildfire in the Big Sur region of the Los Padres National Forest charred more than 50 square miles and destroyed 16 homes as authorities advised more evacuations. The blaze was still just 3 percent contained more than a week after breaking out in the popular outdoor destination’s steep mountain forests.

The fire has forced the closure of a scenic stretch of coastal Highway 1 and driven away visitors at the peak of the tourist season.

Further south in the Los Padres forest, firefighters reported good progress on a separate wildfire that started three weeks ago. The blaze has scorched 95 square miles of remote wilderness, but officials predicted it would be fully contained by July 3, 2008.

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