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.


This is not a map locating the places fall leaves will turn their brightest colors. The dark reds are extreme and exceptional drought markers. Anthony Artusa, NOAA/NWS/NCEP/CPC












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.


Spot fires cross Butts Canyon Road, nearly igniting a transport dozer, Tuesday July 1, 2014 on the Butts Fire. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014.


Fire personnel pull back from a wall of flames as it jumps Butts Canyon Road and Snell Valley Road, Tuesday, July 1, 2014 outside of Middletown. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


Kelseyville firefighters prepare to pull back from the fire on Butts Canyon Road outside of Middletown, as the fire jumps the road, Tuesday July, 1, 2014. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


An inmate crew heads back downhill as flames advance up a hillside on the Butts Canyon fire, Tuesday July 1, 204. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


A Cal Fre helicopter maneuvers to make a drop on the Butts Canyon fire in Napa County, Tuesday July 1, 2014. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


As the day progressed, the Butts fire consumed 2,500 acres of drouth tinder brush and oak woodlands, Tuesday July 1, 2014. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


A sign, melted in the intense heat of the Butts Fire in Butts Canyon, gives arrows for Snell Valley Road and Berryessa road near Middletown. (Kent Porter/ Press Democrat) 2014


Residents of Lake Berreyssa Estates watch as the Butts Canyon Fire rolls down in to Snell Valley, Tuesday July 1, 2014. They were told to evacuate, but were held at a safe zone after the fire jumped Snell Valley Road. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


A dozer is driven back on to it’s carrier after it was damaged fighting the Butts fire along Butts Canyon Road, Tuesday July 1, 2014, near Middletown. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


Private hire helicopters make water drops on the Butts Fire above Snell Valley as the afternoon winds kicked up, Wednesday July 2, 2014, near Middletown. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014


Cheryl Brown was evacuated from her home that was in the path of the Butts Fire, Wednesday July 2, 2014 and spent Tuesday night on a cot at Middletown High School in Middletown Ca., USA, with her dogs Dutch, front, and Buster, in kennel. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

-Kent Porter

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