U.S.

California’s drought heightens fear of fire season

Extremely dry conditions lengthen season for uncontrolled blazes in state thirsty for rainy relief

Firefighters being deployed as wildfires burn through the foothills in Azusa, Calif., in January.
Dan R. Krauss/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — There is no relief in sight from the historic drought ravaging every corner of California, and where there’s drought, there’s fire.

In the thick of winter and normally wet months, 545 fires have broken out so far this year, burning 1,142 acres.

That is a staggering 330 percent increase in fires over the same Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 period last year and a 150 percent jump in burned acreage.

“This is unprecedented,” said Capt. Michael Mohler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Current conditions are as severe as during the hottest summer months, and Cal Fire is bracing for the worst. It has already brought in 125 additional firefighters, who normally come on board when fire season starts in late May in the North and in June in Southern California.

Facilities where firefighting aircraft are based usually close in the winter. Not this year. “All of our aircraft are running this time,” Mohler said. “Aircraft statewide, all the way from San Diego to Chico.”

The longer this historic drought emergency persists, the dryer the vegetation becomes and the higher the risk it will ignite.

The Colby fire in Glendora, near Los Angeles, broke out in January after a string of warm and windy days. It started out small but spread to about 200 acres within 30 minutes, eventually burning more than 1,700 acres. More than 1,000 firefighters and water-dropping aircraft battled the blaze, which destroyed five homes and damaged more than a dozen.

An intensive public education campaign is taking place.

There is enough water to fight fires now, Mohler said, but he added a note of warning to the state’s residents and urged them to conserve supplies. “We’re reminding California residents that not only is it important to save water for the environment and human consumption but for firefighting,” he said.

The longer this historic drought emergency persists, the dryer the vegetation becomes and the higher the risk it will ignite.

A glimmer of hope remains that relief will come in the final 40 days of what is still — in name only, at the moment — the rainy season.

But in the meantime, farmers in the Central Valley who are struggling to keep crops alive know another blow is coming. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce Friday that agricultural users will get no water allocation this year — a decision that could change if there is a deluge.

“We’re talking devastating,” said Gayle Holman, public affairs representative for the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the nation.

Westlands gets all its water from the federal Central Valley Project. The water goes to 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno County and parts of Kings County, land that stretches over 70 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west.

“It was at 20 percent this past year. The year before at 40 percent,” Holman said. “This year, we’d be thrilled at 20 percent. We’re having to look at a new low. The fact that we’re now at zero is just unthinkable.”

Farmers have few options: Take land out of production, drain groundwater resources or bring water in from other areas that may or may not have any water to spare. Whichever they choose, many feel that they have entered a whole new reality.

“It really is a setup for an extremely unprecedented situation that our district has never faced, our growers have never faced,” Holman said. 

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