July 31, 2008

State Fire Record Shattered in California

More acres have burned in California this year than in any other.

And it's not even August.

"There's a potential for a lot more fires and a lot more destruction," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state fire department, CalFire.

A combination of a record dry spring and sparks _ from a flurry of lightning strikes in late June to the bullet that is believed to have sparked the fire near Mariposa _ get most of the blame.

But they come atop a pair of more persistent problems: the unnaturally dense buildup of scrub and forest due to decades of fire suppression and the inexorable incursion of people, with their ignition sources and property to be protected, into previously forested areas.

Add that all up and you have a lot of charred ground.

Roughly 1.1 million acres have burned in California already this year. The previous record was 900,000 acres, set last year when fires in Southern California raged into the fall, Berlant said.

The number could increase significantly, depending largely on how much care Californians take to not start any fires. The fire season here, after all, can easily stretch into November.

"Let's hope it's not one of those years," said Jason Kirschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "We really need people to be very conscious of the fire danger and be more careful than in the past."

Climate experts say some of the conditions that set the stage for this year's fires are likely to repeat more frequently as the climate continues to warm.

The record dryness in March, April and May is consistent with predictions that from the central Sierra north _ or from Yosemite to Mount Lassen _ winter storms are expected to end earlier in the year. That's what happened this year when a series of powerful storms early in the winter gave way to a long dry spell.

"This year furnishes an example of what future years might tend to look like," said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. "It has aspects of what is being predicted for the future."

"We've had a couple of years now where the spring shut off early," Redmond said, adding that it is too early to say whether those occurrences are due to climate change.

"For the moment we can just note, it's not inconsistent," he said.

Also, as the climate warms, more precipitation is expected to fall as rain rather than snow. The snow line will move higher into the mountains, and that means that forests that historically were covered with snow and stayed wet longer will instead dry out faster.

As the seasons wear on, those forests will get even drier.

The anomaly this year was about 8,000 lightning strikes recorded on June 20 that started about 2,000 fires.

Across the West, about 3.6 million acres have burned in more than53,000 fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That's about average over the last 10 years.


(c) 2008, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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