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'Long, hot, incendiary summer': Early wildfires bode ill for California

As Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Point Mugu, Calif., firefighters are hoping to take advantage of rain in the forecast to help contain a wildfire that has scorched at least 28,000 acres in Ventura County.

Record-setting temperatures, erratic winds and a parched landscape spell a dangerous fire season for California, experts said on Friday as firefighters fought to control several large blazes of a kind that usually would not raise thick plumes of smoke over the horizon until late fall.

“This is definitely a preview of a long, hot, incendiary summer,” said William Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge.

A combination of early, powerful gusts from the inland to the coast, called Santa Ana winds, breathed life into the roaring orange flames that devoured brush and raced down hillsides near Malibu toward the Pacific Ocean on Thursday night. The sea-bound winds pour into the southern part of the state from the northeast and southwest, becoming drier and hotter as they approach the coast, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist at the National Weather Service in Oxnard, Calif.

This week, “all the ingredients” came together across parts of California, Patzert said.

The Spring Fire in Ventura County was 56 percent contained, Cal Fire said on its Twitter feed Saturday evening, after jumping to 28,000 acres on Friday, shutting down a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway for a time and drawing nearly 1,900 fire personnel, eight helicopters, and a half-dozen air tankers. The fire damaged at least 15 residences and dozens of other structures, NBCLosAngeles reported, citing fire officials.

The Summit Fire in Riverside County was fully contained at about 3,166 acres, Cal Fire said. Riverside County fire officials said two firefighters were injured as they worked to draw a line around the flames, which destroyed one home, NBCLosAngeles.com reported.

More than 1,000 firefighters battled a third blaze, the 6,720-acre Panther Fire, in Tehama County.

“At this point it’s just a question of meteorology, of the Santa Anas, and of course in Southern California 95 percent of the fires are human (caused),” Patzert said. “Fire is fuel plus meteorology plus ignition.”

Many California residents in areas prone to wildfires have known the fear of watching flames lick the borders of their property, but in the past wide-scale destructive fires usually have not struck until summer or fall. A series of 22 major fires across seven Southern California counties destroyed more than 2,200 homes in 2007 – but those fires lasted over three weeks from October to November, according to a report by the Orange County Fire Authority.

The 2009 Station Fire burned over 160,000 acres, destroyed 80 structures, and killed two county firefighters. That fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history, wasn't sparked until late August, according to an after action review. The cost to fully contain the Station Fire topped $95 million, the U.S. Fire Service reported.

“This is certainly one of the earliest fire seasons I remember,” Patzert said.

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

Firefighters battle the Springs Fire at Point Mugu State Park on May 3. A wind-driven wildfire raged along the California coast north of Los Angeles early on Friday.

Firefighters around Camarillo contended with unpredictable Santa Ana winds as flames threatened residences on Thursday and Friday. Such winds drive from inland to the sea, but they usually occur during the fall and winter months.

“We’re having Santa Ana events in May,” Capt. Mike Lindberry of the Ventura County Fire Department said on Thursday. “An event like this … it hasn’t happened in my career.”

Those winds make it harder for firefighters to corral the flames as they leap across scrubby, uninhabited areas.

“The winds are just super strong. They couldn’t get ahead of the fire because the winds are so strong, and the heat was tremendous,” said Seto.

Extremely dry conditions for this time of year have also contributed to the growth of the fires, Seto said. The dryness of the vegetation that fueled the flames in the Camarillo area was comparable to what is usually measured in July, he said.

Temperatures hit a record high for the date of 98 degrees in Camarillo on Thursday, Seto said, topping the previous high of 94 degrees in 2004. Normal for this time of May is about 74 degrees, he said.

While parts of the Plains states and upper Midwest saw late-season snowfall earlier this week, officials in California have said that the state's snowpack is lighter than normal. That means the amount of water that flows into state reservoirs over coming months will be less than usual as the snow melts.

“I’m finding nothing,” Frank Gehrke, chief surveyor for the Department of Water Resources, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Seriously, there is no snow on the course at all.” The water content in California’s high-altitude snow turned out to be only 17 percent of what it usually is, the department reported.

Fire officials have been warning about the dangerous fire conditions in California for several months. After an 100-acre brush fire flared up in Monrovia in April, city fire Chief Chris Donovan told reporters that experts anticipated a “very dry – and very bad” season.

A wildfire outlook produced by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, predicted “above normal” fire potential for Southern California, the Sacramento Valley and parts of southern Oregon in May. The likelihood of significant fires will expand through Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and other large swaths of California over the summer months, according to the fire center’s outlook.

“This big picture is across the country it’s been sort of two winters, as the Northeast and the Midwest had a never-ending winter with spring that just didn’t want to show up,” Patzert said. Meanwhile, in Southern California, “the rain spigot essentially just turned off in January.”

“It’s a no-brainer to tell you that it is going to be a busy fire season,” he said.

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

A fire engine is parked on Pacific Coast Highway as the Springs Fire burns in the hills at Point Mugu State Park on May 3.

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