IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Wildfires Plague California as Dangerous Heat Builds

Fire officials have continued to warn that once vegetation fully dries out — typically by midsummer — wildfires could really ramp up, given the profusion of grass and brush that grew after two winters with heavy precipitation.

Power lines shine in sun light along Richmond Road on Sept. 27, 2023, in Susanville, California. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Irfan Khan/TNS
(TNS) - As California braced for a dangerous, prolonged heat wave that’s expected to last through next week, firefighters across the state were already battling several new wildfires, some serious enough to force evacuations.

Much of Northern California remained under a red flag warning — an alert for extreme fire weather — as well as an excessive heat warning. The red flag alert warned of a combination of winds up to 30 mph, low humidity and hot temperatures that “can contribute to extreme fire behavior,” according to the National Weather Service.

At least four new fires ignited in the region Tuesday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Given the conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initiated its first public safety power shutoffs of the year, affecting 2,000 customers across eight counties — Butte, Colusa, Lake, Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama and Yolo. The shutoffs, which, are expected to last at least through Wednesday, are meant to prevent the utility’s equipment from sparking fires during dangerous conditions.

The largest of the new blazes, the Thompson fire in Butte County, forced several evacuation orders and warnings near the city of Oroville after it broke out just before 11 a.m. Tuesday, according to Dan Collins, a fire captain at Cal Fire’s Butte County Station. Within a few hours, it had grown to almost 100 acres, burning through mostly grassland, he said.

No buildings have been damaged, but the fire is threatening about 230 structures in the area. Collins said PG&E de-energized the power lines in the area of the fire after the flames broke out. The fire had zero containment as of Tuesday afternoon.

The Toll fire in Napa County, north of Calistoga, began just before 10 a.m. Tuesday and had grown to about 50 acres by that afternoon, according to Cal Fire.

The wind-driven fire has closed at least one road in the area and prompted several evacuation orders and warnings, affecting just over 100 people in the area, according to Jason Clay, a Cal Fire spokesperson at the Sonoma-Lake-Napa station. No containment had been reached on that fire as of Tuesday afternoon.

The conditions in the area are ripe for further wildfires to erupt, Clay said.

“The grasses are really dry,” said Clay, also mentioning the area’s red flag warning. “That combination is all aligning, [and] that could lead to extreme fire behavior.”

Fire officials have continued to warn that once vegetation fully dries out — typically by midsummer — wildfires could really ramp up, given the profusion of grass and brush that grew after two winters with heavy precipitation.

“Avoid activities that could spark a wildfire, such as parking on dry grass, dragging chains, or using equipment during the hottest parts of the day. Remember, one less spark means one less fire,” Cal Fire advised on social media.

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, called it “essentially inevitable” that wildfires would continue to start and grow during the heat wave — which was just getting started Tuesday — given the threat of further fire starts from the holiday weekend’s fireworks and firecrackers, the hot temperatures and the build-up of dry fuels.

“It’s a pretty bad combination, honestly, to have a potentially record-breaking heat wave that starts off with dry north winds,” Swain said in a briefing Monday. “Buckle up, I think California’s fire season is likely to escalate considerably over the next five to seven days.”

In eastern San Diego County, another large fire continued to grow after sparking Monday. The McCain fire, burning just off Interstate 8, was only 5 percent contained, having scorched about 1,000 acres as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. The fire had prompted multiple evacuation orders and warnings, affecting about 140 people, according to Mike Cornette, a fire captain with the San Diego County Cal Fire team.

Authorities closed a section of the westbound lane of Interstate 8, but the eastbound lane remained open, Cornette said. A definitive cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Cornette said it was probably caused by a traffic collision that caused a vehicle to become engulfed in flames. He said about 150 structures were threatened, but none had been damaged.

“Right now, there’s not a whole lot of smoke coming off the fire, but the fire is still active,” said Cornette, who expected that it would take several more days before the fire could be fully contained.

Two other small fires had also sparked Tuesday in Northern California: the Denverton fire in Solano County and the Yolla fire in Shasta County, both smaller than 30 acres as of Tuesday afternoon.

Crews were also still fighting the Basin fire, which had burned more than 13,000 acres in the Sierra National Forest in Fresno County as of Tuesday. It was 17 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

That blaze is burning not far from the Balch Camp, an isolated community from which more than 150 people were evacuated because of the flames. PG&E has power infrastructure there, but a spokesperson for the utility said none of its facilities had been affected as of Tuesday morning.


(Los Angeles Times staff writer Rachel Uranga contributed to this report.)


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.