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Calif. Drought Drives Fears Of Brutal Summer Fire Season

June 22, 2014

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News


This year, summer arrived with many of the usual Northern California trappings: people flocking to parks and beaches and ballgames playing on the radio while families did yard work.

As California suffers through its third year of drought however, summer is also taking on an ominous tone.

"We`re looking at a potentially devastating fire season," said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, on Saturday.

"Today is the first day of summer but we`ve already seen more than 2,200 fires this year, which is about 70 percent more than normal," she said. "We are seeing vegetation dried out, in conditions we wouldn`t normally see until July and August. With the drought, the fuels are burning very hot."

CalFire, as the state`s firefighting agency is known, has added 300 additional firefighters this summer, boosting its seasonal staffing levels to 2,700 firefighters statewide. It has added more engines and other equipment and placed most Northern California stations on full summer staffing levels in early May, a month sooner than usual.

Rainfall in most parts of California since July 1 has been roughly half of normal, and major reservoirs like Shasta,Oroville and San Luis are only one-third to half full. Federal officials said Thursday that 33 percent of Californianow is in "exceptional drought" -- the most severe of five categories, up from 25 percent last week.

In addition to being very dry, this year has already reached record temperatures.

California experienced the hottest January to May period this year in 119 years of federal record-keeping, with the temperature 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists at the agency say California is also on track to have a hotter-than-normal summer.

Some of that is related to climate change, which has been steadily warming the planet. Some is related to short-term conditions, such as persistent ridges of high-pressure air that have blocked rainfall to the state for much of the past year.

"We`re asking people to be very cautious when they are using power tools," Tolmachoff said. "Or when they are towing a car, the chain needs to be kept from dragging on the ground, because it can cause sparks. We are also asking people to be very cautious with fireworks on the Fourth of July."

Many people don`t realize why the earth has seasons, said Andrew Fraknoi, chairman of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

The reason? Earth is tilted on a 23-degree lean. As it orbits the sun, different parts of the earth receive different amounts of sunlight. Summer in California is when the Northern Hemisphere receives more sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere, where it is now winter.

The summer solstice -- when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky -- has for thousands of years sparked celebrations around growing crops, fertility and other rituals. More than 36,000 people, many associated with New Age or pagan groups, descended on Stonehenge in England on Saturday to mark the event.

"Summer solstice celebrations began before they had calendars on Google where everybody knows what time it is to the minute," said Fraknoi. "A celebration was a good marker for everybody of where they were in the year."


(c)2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)


Fire engulfs a structure during a wildfire Thursday, May 15, 2014, in Escondido, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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