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Drought is over, so why is California's fire season so bad?

KCRA Sacramento logo KCRA Sacramento 7/10/2018

a large red truck driving down a dirt road © Brandi Cummings/KCRA

It's only the beginning of summer and California residents have already found themselves in a furnace of oppressive heat and raging wildfires. At the current pace, the two fire seasons since California's five-year drought ended will be the worst on record.

The wildfires that torched California in 2017 caused historic levels of death and destruction, but the fierce start to the season in 2018 indicates this year could be equally challenging for overworked crews. Last year the federal government spent over $2.39 billion on firefighting, easily outpacing all previous fire seasons.

Since Jan. 1, the state has seen 2,964 wildfires. At this same time last year, 2,750 had sparked. Wildfires have already torched 231,000 acres since the start of the new year.

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"Statistically, we're ahead of last year," Cal Fire deputy chief Scott McLean said. "Fire behavior this year is more aggressive earlier in the year."

In recent weeks, residents have been forced to flee their homes as firefighters battled flames up and down the state and temperatures in inland valleys and mountain regions repeatedly soared into the triple digits.

McLean said while the state saw heavy precipitation two years ago, with reservoirs filling up and California Gov. Jerry Brown declaring an end to the drought, the landscape is parched and groundwater depleted from multiple years marked by low rainfall and a paltry snowpack.

"Folks believe the rains came and took care of the problem," McLean said. "They exasperated the problem by promoting growth. Our grass growth has been very significant in recent years and that has added fuel to these fires. It just takes a spark. We need several years of significant winters to get us back to the place we were before."

"The fact is millions of trees die every year, and there are millions of little seedlings that don't make it," said Keith Gilles, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. "But when you have this many big trees dead, it's pretty different. The fuel load is very high."

On Monday, a battalion of 2,716 firefighters, 199 engines, 26 dozers and 14 helicopters fought the Klamathon Fire at the California-Oregon brder where temperatures hit the low 100s and dry winds spread flames.

Over the weekend, firefighters battled more than a dozen wildfires racing across Southern California, where a heat wave knocked out power for thousands.

McLean said Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, is prepared for the season and plans to respond to initial attacks with more resources to stop the spread of fires.

"We're being really aggressive to get initial resources in the initial dispatch," he said. "We have the ability to move our resources, aircraft, crews, to be pre-staged in case that area has a significant weather pattern that might contribute to the spread of a fire."

Cal Fire is asking California residents to do their part by clearing dry brush from properties and avoiding behaviors that may spark the next fire.

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