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California Drought Update: Firefighters Get Upper Hand in North State Blazes

| January 9, 2014
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A NASA satellite image shows fires burning over the weekend in Humboldt County (left) and Tehama County (right). (NASA/University of Wisconsin)

A NASA satellite image shows fires burning over the weekend in Humboldt County (left) and Tehama County (right). (NASA/University of Wisconsin)

Update, Thursday (Jan. 9): Status of the two Northern California wildfires:

Campbell Fire: The blaze burning in the Ishi Wilderness in Lassen National Forest has covered 865 acres and is 90 percent contained. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

Red Fire: Cal Fire says the 333-acre fire, burning about 15 miles east of the Humboldt County city of Arcata, is 100 percent contained. No injuries or property damage reported.

Original post: It’s January, when California firefighters normally get a break from fighting blazes in the state’s backlands. But not this year, as the state deals with the consequences of this season’s missing rains. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, and as you can plainly see in NASA satellite images, fires are burning in areas of the North State (and in southern Oregon, too) that are generally too wet to burn at this time of year.

Here’s the Chron’s Kevin Fagan on the Bay Area impact of fires that have broken out since New Year’s Day in Humboldt County and Tehama County:

The Marin County Fire Department rolled its resources north over the weekend to fight the Red Fire about 20 miles east of Arcata in Humboldt County, and to the Campbell Fire about 20 miles east of Red Bluff in the Lassen National Forest.

The two fires have burned a combined 1,000 acres of forest in the past two days. No structures have been threatened or injuries reported, and both blazes are about 40 percent contained.

The fires are a lot less dangerous than many that erupt in the summer. But fire experts are worried all the same, because January is a time of year when the northern reaches of the state normally are too wet to ignite.

“It’s unprecedented for us to do this in January,” said Battalion Chief Mike Giannini, whose Marin County Fire Department is one of the first to be called upon to send aid north.

“We’ve sent crews this early in the year in the past to Southern California, because their fire season never seems to end,” Giannini said. “But not up there. Not to places like Humboldt, which has coastal, high-humidity, forested types of conditions we would normally equate with low fire danger.”

Northern California, like the rest of the state, is far short of its normal rainfall for the season that started last July 1. Eureka, on the Humboldt Coast, has gotten just 28 percent of its seasonal average to date. Redding, at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, has received 23 percent of normal for early January.

Effects of the prolonged dry spell, which began a year ago during the 2012-13 rainy season, are being felt most dramatically in the Sacramento area. As the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser reports today, flows from the rapidly shrinking Folsom Lake into the American River will be cut dramatically this week. Some Sacramento-area communities that depend on the lake for drinking water are imposing severe restrictions on water use:

Without reducing water releases to the river, and without a return to normal winter weather, water agencies such as San Juan Water District would risk running out of water by March. At that point, the district’s water intake at Folsom Dam would be sucking air.

“This is an exceedingly difficult yet critical situation we’re in right now,” said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District, which serves Roseville, Granite Bay, Folsom, Fair Oaks, Citrus Heights and Orangevale.

On Wednesday, San Juan’s board of directors will be asked to adopt the most extreme water conservation measures possible. The so-called Stage 5 drought restrictions would ban all outdoor watering, prohibit water from being used for construction activities, ban new connections to the water system, and call on customers to reduce indoor water use by 50 percent.

Lorance was unable to recall a prior instance in which such extreme conservation measures were adopted by the district.

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Category: Environment, Fire, Science, Weather

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • trixie

    This is terrifying!

  • Daniel Barth

    I wonder if it is the right approach to fight the fires that are currently spreading. If they are moving slowly, such fires could be a benefit by clearing out low growing vegetation that suck moisture from the soil and controlled fires reduce underbrush to prevent future fires from getting out of control

  • Tessa Zimmer

    wow this is sad

  • Tessa Zimmer

    Kind of scary too.