Weather and Natural Disasters

California wildfire season off to hot start as acreage burned up threefold from year ago

Key Points
  • Sizzling temperatures and dry conditions bring red flag warnings of elevated fire danger.
  • Bumper crop of heavy grass from heavy winter rains is adding to wildfire risk.
  • Fire agencies clamp down on hobbyist drones at incidents even as see promise in using them for wildfire management.
Hotshot team supervisor watches as firefighters get in to position as helicopters drop water during an aerial assault to contain a brush fire in Southern California.
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times

Wildfire season is just getting underway, but the recent heatwave, dry conditions and abundant growth of grasses from heavy winter rains is already spelling danger for California.

According to Cal Fire, more than 19,000 acres of land had been scorched in the year-to-date period through Thursday—representing a threefold increase over of the amount burned in the same period a year ago. The number of fires handled by the state agency is up about 20 percent so far this year from a year ago.

As temperatures topped 100 degrees this week in many parts of California, there were red flag warnings for elevated fire danger. Some desert areas in Southern California were forecast to hit a sizzling 118 degrees over the weekend.

"Brushfire season is underway," Capt. Erik Scott, a spokesman for the LA Fire Department said Friday. "We've seen a rapid spread of small brushfires on high-temperature days."

The wet winter means there's abundant grass growth along hillsides that adds to the wildfire risk. California's rainy season was one of the wettest on record, and followed a six-year drought.

Dry brush was fuel for a recent brushfire in the Mandeville Canyon area above LA's upscale community of Brentwood. It was started when a weed wacker clearing brush produced sparks.

"We haven't faced an amount of annual grasses of this significance in many years," Scott said. "Adding to that challenge is higher accumulations of dead fuel like dead brush, which is due to many years of drought. That dead brush won't come back despite all the rain we've had."

California's wildfire season tends to start in the late spring and goes all the way into the fall. Experts see fire risk likely increasing in the coming months as mounds of snow melt, and exposes more fuels for ignition.

One of the biggest fires currently underway in the state is the so-called Holcomb Fire in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest. Around 1,200 firefighters and a fleet of air tankers are assigned to fight the wildfire, which started Monday and so far has scorched more than 1,500 acres.

'Red flag warnings'

California's Kern County, where temperatures hit 109 on Friday in some areas, was the site of the "Highway Fire" east of Big Bear Lake. It was fueled by grass, brush and scattered timber. There also were smaller wildfires east of San Jose as well as in Siskiyou County, the northernmost region of the state.

"We have red-flag warnings from near the California-Oregon border all the way down to the Bay Area and then down into the state's Central Valley," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean.

The National Weather Service's red-flag warning is designed to alert firefighting agencies about weather conditions where there's an elevated risk of "rapid or dramatic increase in wildfire activity," according to Cal Fire.

Fire officials also see an added risk of lightening-sparked fires, particularly in forest areas where there's fuel from dead trees and dry leaves, cones and broken twigs. There are more than 100 million dead trees in California forests following the drought, and when added with the dry brush there's a risk of major fires this season.

Drones become a problem

Meantime, government agencies are redoubling efforts to fight hobbyist drones after more incidents around the nation of the craft interfering with firefighting operations.

From 2015 to 2016, the incidents of private drone intrusions over or near wildfires jumped from around 12 cases to 42 reported instances, according to the Interior Department. As part of the effort, the agency this month announced an expansion of its program to prevent drone incursions over wildland fires.

Drone intrusions a growing problem for firefighting efforts.
Source: US Bureau of Land Management

In Arizona last week, firefighters battling the Williams Fire in the northern part of the state were forced to delay using a helicopter for water drops after an unauthorized drone was reported in the area. Similarly, there were four separate cases of private drones interfering with the recent Pinal Fire in Southern Arizona.

That said, some local firefighting agencies see drones as potentially useful tools for fire incidents, high-risk rescues or other emergencies. Still, they point out the devices must only be used by trained professionals, or they risk becoming a hazard.

Federal agencies also see the drones or unmanned aircraft systems having value, particularly if they are equipped with sensors that add to their features.

"The Forest Service has been exploring the potential to fly UAS to perform wildfire management," said the agency's emergency management specialist Mike Ferris.

Ferris said there's the potential for the UAS to carry equipment that can detect fires, map fires, assess fire potential, and prioritize fires. Also, he said it can assist in identifying roads, potential fire breaks, water sources, potential firelines or helispot locations.

The Forest Service also believes authorized drones used by trained personnel can be helpful to spot fires, assess potential risks, monitor air quality and get infrared images.

"These things can get in places people can't," said Jim Brinkley of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a group representing more than 300,000 firefighters and paramedics. "For a high-rise fire there's value in having a drone able to get a bird's eye view on upper floors….[and] for brushfires covering long distances that you can't do on foot."

For its part, the L.A. Fire Department wants to use drones, and just this week received approval from a City Council committee. Final approval by the full Council could come in the next few weeks, according to Scott, the L.A. Fire spokesman.

Even so, privacy remains a concern with the use of drones by fire or police agencies, although fire officials insist their drones would only be used for agency purposes—not to snoop on people or property.