Central Valley

Drought raises worry of intense fire season

MARIPOSA -- Charles Lammers spends time every winter clearing the dead brush around his modest, two-story house, making sure any approaching wildfire doesn't have a direct path to his door.

It's something many residents in his rural community of Midpines have taken care to do since a massive blaze a year ago charred 53 square miles and destroyed 30 homes in the area southwest of Yosemite National Park.

"I think a large group of people are aware of the fire danger, but I think there's a huge group that have no concept of how easy it is for a major, devastating fire to come through and burn your house, destroy the value of your land," Lammers said.

Federal and state fire officials are warning that a third year of drought means California could face one of its worst wildfire seasons in years. Scientists say the danger could be heightened by global warming.

More wildfires than last year

Peak fire season begins July 1, but Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said a severe, early spring fire in Santa Barbara has fire officials concerned about the intensity of this year's wildfire season.

"Experts believe that climate change may be influencing drought and therefore wildfire occurrences, but that's an ongoing study," she said.

There have been 2,959 wildfires this year in California, up from 2,354 a year ago at this time, Upton said earlier this week.

Though the state has seen more fires this year, less area has been destroyed.

Upton attributed the decrease to the fast, effective response of fire crews, even though state budget cuts have reduced Cal Fire's coffers by $27 million this year. The amount includes funds for a proposed contract for a DC-10 air tanker. An executive order by Gov. Schwar- zenegger in May allowed fire officials to secure and deploy the resources needed to battle wildfires. The governor also has exempted fire personnel from statewide furlough programs imposed to close a gaping budget deficit.

"The number of resources on the ground are the same, with the exception of that one DC-10," state fire department director Del Walters said. If the plane is needed, it can be taken out on a pay-per-use period, he added.

On Thursday, firefighters continued to battle wildfires throughout the state. The Knight fire in Tuolumne County had grown to 6,130 acres and was at 60 percent containment.

The Hat Creek Complex fire had grown to nearly 10,000 acres in Lassen and Shasta counties and was at 20 percent containment. Also, 120 residences were threatened by a 12,704-acre wildfire in Shasta County.

No major damage to homes has been reported in the recent fires, a trend fire officials hope to keep up with the help of residents such as Lammers in Mariposa County.

Lammers has planned for the worst, positioning water tanks on the hill above his house and one below. Tree limbs have been lifted off the ground, and there's hardly any dead brush for at least 200 feet around the property.

Upton encouraged the preparedness but warned homeowners to do their brush-clearing in the winter or spring.

"People use power equipment and will mow dead grass with a mower, and it's not meant to do it," she said. "You get too late in the year and you pick the wrong day, you run a risk of starting the thing you're trying to avoid."