California meets drought-fueled fire season with extra crews

Thursday, August 6, 2015

LAKEPORT, Calif. -- The firefighters come from near and far, working 24-hour shifts to snuff out an unpredictable blaze that has burned more than 100 square miles in Northern California near a major recreational lake.

They bunk in tight sleepers and eat in a big mess hall. They depart in the mornings with enormous high-calorie sack lunches of sandwiches and cookies as others come back tired, footsore and hungry to their makeshift base at the Lake County fairgrounds.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho has listed the fire 110 miles north of San Francisco as the nation's highest priority for crews and equipment. It is the largest of 23 fires statewide and takes up nearly a third of the 10,000 firefighters dispatched in California, which has become a tinder box amid years of drought.

The good news is state fire officials prepared for a drought-fueled fire season and staffed up early with several hundred more firefighters than previous years, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

"We're definitely at a medium to high level of activity, but we're not at extreme, where we are low on resources by any means," he said. "That helps us out if there are new fires."

Across the U.S., 118 fires are burning on 2,757 square miles, according to the Idaho fire center. About 17,200 people are fighting those fires, but resources are not tapped out yet, center spokeswoman Robyn Broyles said. If civilian crews run low, officials can call on national guard and military crews.

August is the height of fire season, and while the number of fires nationally is below average, the 9,361 square miles burned to date is about 50 percent above average. Most of that -- 7,731 square miles -- has been in Alaska.

On Wednesday, evacuation orders for a small Washington town were lifted after a fast-growing wildfire bypassed the community. Fire spokesman Ron Fryer said people were being allowed back into their homes in Roosevelt, about 120 miles east of Portland, Oregon. He said the grass fire that began Tuesday has grown to 26 square miles.

In California, the Department of Fire and Forestry Protection has responded to 4,200 fires this year -- 1,500 more than average, Berlant said.

The biggest is in rugged terrain in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, and its cause is under investigation. More than 13,000 people have been required or urged to leave, and at least 39 homes have been destroyed.

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