Much has been written (er…photographed) this year on California’s now extreme drought-see below-It was just a matter of time before fire season caught up with the dry conditions. It’s not hype. Conditions are about as critical as it can get for this time of year, save for lightning and offshore (foehn) wind events. Case in point, the ongoing Butts Fire on the Lake/Napa county line has redefined what we think is dry and what is kindling dry.
Having heard the original dispatch on our police scanners, I listened very carefully. Knowing the area fairly well and the past fire history, the potential for a major fire was a possibility. It really only took about ten minutes to figure out the fire would need to be covered. After Sonoma Air Attack reported on conditions, it was clear that the fire was going to be an “extended attack” fire, that means multiple days and literally tons of resources to help fight the blaze.
Arriving on the scene, the blaze had spread across and up dozens of acres, slope and wind driven. Fluid, I stayed with engine crews. Not a good time to freelance a pretty fire picture, the uneasy feeling I had was that fire would jump Butts Canyon road in Butts Canyon. As the fire reached the top of the ridge, it absolutely took off. The wind, which was not overwhelmingly strong, suddenly kicked up and pushed flames over and downslope towards the road. Spot fires leaped from the main front, igniting brush…everywhere it seemed. Back, front, side.
The fire made a sound like a large waterfall, or water hitting a hot oily frying pan, whipping through pine trees, brush and hillsides choked with manzanita. Radiant heat could be felt through vehicle windows, smoke was thick and acrid; a campfire smell gone to hell in a hand basket. Always though, the road was the fire break and we all pulled back as the flames literally roared down the canyon. I’ve heard the sound before, mostly in forest land; but only in September and October. Never in early July and rarely in our neck of the woods. So to speak.
According to Amy Head, a captain with Cal Fire, “The fire conditions that we saw on Tuesday on the Butts Fire were indicative of conditions we see much later in the season. The fire was moving at a rapid rate and consuming everything in it’s path very quickly. With it only being the 1st part of July, it’s definitely a sign of what this fire season could bring us.“
Cal Fire’s Department information Officer Daniel Berlant reiterates. “In fact the reason this fire burned at such a rapid rate was do to just how dry the brush and trees are right now. In fact conditions are about 6 to 8 weeks drier than normal.”
That would put us in to September conditions.
Head continues, “The drought is definitely playing a huge role in this fire seasons conditions. With 3 years of below average rain fall, fuel moisture levels are at historically low levels in many parts of the state including in the Sonoma-Lake-Napa areas. With the Fourth of July upon is, Heads asks “That people are extremely cautious. Only use fireworks in approved areas and only safe and sane approved fireworks.”
The mantra? Be very cautious about anything you do while hiking, biking, driving, camping…in the wildland…we skipped the lazy days of summer and are now in the hazy days of fall.