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California prepares for wildfire season as Alberta blaze rages

For Californians, Alberta's gargantuan blaze is a reminder that the Golden State has faced its own super-fires over the years — and officials warn that the risks are worsening.

Air National Guard C-130 Hercules dropping water last week during a fire-fighting training mission in Southern California.
Source: US Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Nicholas Carzis
Air National Guard C-130 Hercules dropping water last week during a fire-fighting training mission in Southern California.

El Nino-fueled storms have brought some relief to drought-parched California this year, but the central and southern portions of the state, as well as the Sierra Nevada foothills in the north remain at high risk, according to experts. The state's peak wildfire season comes in late July or August, with the hot, dry conditions, although the danger will last well into the fall months.

California last year "had two of the top-10 most devastating fires in the state's history — very similar conditions to what's occurring in Canada right now," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire). "There's drought-induced tree mortality and we have just critically parched, dry vegetation, all (resulting in) just explosive fire conditions."

State and federal officials estimate there are 29 million dead trees throughout the Sierra Nevada mountain range. "There are a lot of trees that have died because of long-term drought and maybe some bugs as well," said Heath Hockenberry, National Weather Service's national fire weather program manager.

Last fall, two mega-fires brought death and destruction to Northern California. Together, the so-called Butte and Valley fires caused an estimated $2 billion in damage, destroyed 1,830 homes, and left six people dead. Nearly 150,000 acres were burned in five counties of the state, and some wineries and vineyards were lost or damaged.

"The fire risk potential is quite high, particularly in Central and Southern California, where either the hope for El Nino rains didn't really come but there were enough rains to cause more brush to grow and chaparral to grow," said Mark Bove, a senior research meteorologist for Munich Reinsurance America. "What will happen as they go into the dry season is all that new growth and greenery will dry out and it will just end up being more fuel for potential fires later this summer and autumn."

Stanton Florea, a Vallejo, California-based spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said Southern California's "fire danger is starting off here in May. It is expected to be busier than normal down there."

There was a reminder Friday of the region's brush-fire risk when a small blaze scorched dry hillsides in San Dimas, a community located about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles The blaze was put out by the L.A.County Fire Department before reaching the nearby Angeles National Forest.

Overall, 2016 looks to be "closer to an average year for us than we've had in five or six years," said the U.S. Forest Service official. The roughly 20 million acres that the agency manages "will not begin to see bigger campaign fires for some time," since there's still snow on the ground in some higher elevation areas.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the US...

Other parts of the country are forecast to have elevated fire risk this season, too.

The Southwest and Southern states, as well as Alaska and Hawaii, will have "above-normal significant wildland fire potential," with the risk starting as early as this month in some places, according to a wildfire outlook issued May 1 by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. "Normal significant wild land fire potential is expected for the Northern Rockies. Significant wild land fire potential is expected to transition from above normal back to normal over the Appalachians in May due to increasing moisture and green-up."

Preparations are already underway to test the readiness of fire crews and aerial firefighting equipment out west.

In Colorado, Global SuperTanker's "Spirit of John Muir," a Boeing 747 converted into the world's largest aerial fire-fighting plane, launched Thursday, and news media were given demonstrations at the Colorado Springs Airport. The 747 is capable of carrying up about 20,000 gallons of water or retardant.

"We're fully prepared for fire season," said Florea, the U.S. Forest Service spokesman. For the 2016 fire season, the agency has "helitack" crews and 21 air tankers available in the western United States. They could boost that number up to 29 with eight military C-130's.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County will have two Bombardier CL-415 Superscooper fire-fighting aircraft on loan from the government of Quebec starting in the fall for wildfire suppression, as well as the county's own fleet of helicopters. The county plans to stage extra strike teams in the field this season and place them in higher fire risk areas such as Malibu and Santa Clarita. In February, Malibu had a wildfire with some crews on the lines composed of state prisoners, including one female inmate firefighter who died as a result of injuries suffered while battling the blaze.

The Oakland firestorm in 1991 remains the nation's costliest wildfire in dollar terms, totaling a $3 billion loss when adjusted to today's dollars, according to insurance industry data. The fires, which took place during a drought year and in the hillsides above the East San Francisco Bay city, killed 25 people and destroyed 2,843 homes and more than 430 apartments.