BURNEY, Calif. – Wildfires, like earthquakes, are a frightening fact of life in California, just more predictable. So as thousands of firefighters made progress in taming more than a dozen blazes that have pockmarked the northern half of the state, fire officials and anxious residents of drought-afflicted rural communities breathed a shallow sigh of relief they knew might not last long.
Light rain and an infusion of personnel and equipment from as far away as San Diego allowed fire crews to continue gaining momentum Wednesday on a pair of wildfires that exploded over the weekend in a national forest filled with moisture-starved fallen trees and have burned more than 110 square miles, officials said. The two fires burning about 7 miles apart in Shasta and Lassen counties were among nine major wildfires that erupted in a 24-hour period last week, most sparked by lightning.
Firefighters “are a finite resource, and we hit all the fires that we can as quickly as we can and we are successful most of the time keeping the fires at less than 10 acres,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen. “When you get that many fires in remote locations and they all hit at once, we ran out of folks essentially, so they got bigger and we had to play catch-up a little bit.”
Eight homes, a historic post office and a restaurant were lost in the smaller of the two fires that started in Lassen National Forest and threatened Burney, a town of about 3,000 people in Shasta County. Cooler temperatures and scattered showers also helped firefighters hold the line on four fires that have torched 51 square miles of wilderness and range and prompted evacuations in the state’s farthest reaches, including one that started in Oregon.
Also in Oregon, near Rowena, a town west of The Dalles on the Columbia River, residents of 275 homes had been told to evacuate as of Wednesday night. No homes had burned as of Wednesday night, a spokesman said. Firefighters planned to work through the night protecting structures.
In Oregon and Washington, the number of fires is running 15 percent above average and they have consumed nearly three times as much land.
The number of wildfires in Northern California is at 123 percent of average, but the amount of acreage left blackened is almost half of the decade average since many of the blazes have been small.
In Southern California, where the worst fires typically come with the fall Santa Ana winds, the number of fires has been just under average and the number of acres burned two-thirds below average.
The fire center predicted this month that given the record dry fuels on forest floors and no significant rain in the forecast, the potential for significant fires will remain high in California, Oregon and Washington though at least September.