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New Wildfire Forces Evacuations in California

In California these days, the start -- and end -- of wildfire season is anyone's guess.

By Melanie Mason and Joel Rubin

In California these days, the start -- and end -- of wildfire season is anyone's guess.

Not long ago fire officials eyed the autumn months as the time large blazes were most likely to ignite, after hot summer months had left brush and woods primed to burn.

But this year, as in recent years, the fires have come early. And they aren't likely to end any time soon.

Already this summer, several hundred firefighters have battled the Pawnee fire in Lake County that started June 23 and, so far, has burned more than 14,000 acres and destroyed 22 structures. On Saturday night, the County fire in the Yolo County countryside roared to life as firefighters ordered evacuations and battled to get a toehold on the 32,500-acre blaze in the face of hot, gusty winds. By Sunday night, the fire was 2% contained.

"Fire season doesn't seem like the right term to use anymore. The new normal for us is nearly a year-round fire season," said Chris Anthony, a Cal-Fire division chief who was part of the team battling the County fire Sunday. "Twenty-two thousand acres in less than 24 hours at the end of June is not a good sign of things that might come."

The County fire began Saturday afternoon and, by dusk, had spread to a few thousand acres in and around Guinda, a rural community about 50 miles northwest of Sacramento. Fire officials, however, warned that red flag conditions -- a perilous mix of low humidity, strong winds and high temperatures -- could fuel the fire overnight.

By dawn it was clear they had been right to worry. The fire had more than quadrupled in size and by noon had surpassed 20,000 acres, according to Cal-Fire, the agency that coordinates responses to wildfires across the state.

Donna Harden, 58, who lives across the street from the Western Yolo Grange hall in Guinda being used as the town evacuation center, said she had been watching the fire's progression since it started and was prepared to leave town if the flames got closer.

"My stuff is packed," Harden said. "I'm ready to go at any minute. I think I packed too much but it's OK." Her adult daughter, who lives in nearby Esparto, had come to help pack and water the house's perimeter, which was mostly dirt.

The Grange hall was empty Sunday afternoon except for a bulletin board that displayed the latest news on the fire.

A rush of firefighters and equipment, which Anthony said had been staged in the area because of the nearby Pawnee blaze and red flag conditions, swarmed the area starting around 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The gusty winds, Harden said, made for an unpredictable fire that changed directions several times. Although fires in nearby canyons aren't uncommon, she said, she couldn't recall a fire coming so close to her home in the nearly 30 years she lived here.

"It's scary," she said. "If you look at it from here, it looks so far away. But, oh my God, it's really close. It's really close."

As the fire continued to spread Sunday, it pushed west into Napa County and authorities significantly increased the area under mandatory evacuations to include a sparsely populated area of rugged terrain from Lake Berryessa to California 89, about 25 miles away. Evacuation orders were expanded late Sunday to include homes along or off California 128 from Monticello Dam to Pleasants Valley Road.

About 300 people fled the area, Anthony said. More than 1,000 firefighters, meanwhile, endured triple-digit temperatures as they worked on the ground to contain the fire as pilots overhead dropped fire retardant from air tankers and helicopters.

Officials said 116 structures were threatened by the fire.

Anthony, the Cal-Fire division chief, said crews were making progress as they raced to dig fire breaks along the northern and eastern perimeter of the fire before a forecasted shift in winds, which could reverse the direction of the blaze. A change in wind direction, he said, would also bring somewhat cooler temperatures and higher humidity, which would help firefighters get control of the fire.

But firefighters were hampered by flying embers that ignited spot fires well ahead of the main fire line. "It takes just the smallest spark or the smallest ember to start more fires," Anthony said.

Wyatt Cline, 62, held forth on the porch outside the Guinda Corner Store, which he runs, trading rumors with neighbors about what caused the fire and what direction they expected it to go. Guinda is a town of about 500 people, nestled in a valley dotted with orchards growing almonds, walnuts and olives.

Fires in this part of Yolo County aren't unusual, said Cline, who retired after 31 years with the Woodland Fire Department. "But a fire of this magnitude is unusual."

The region is painfully familiar with wildfires. In October, on the other side of Lake Berryessa from where the County fire is currently burning, the Atlas fire erupted. It was one of several enormous blazes that burned in and around the state's famed wine country, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Brian Paddock, the owner of a 15-acre organic almond orchard on the edge of the evacuation area, said he and family members watched from the roof of their house Saturday night as a ridge a mile away was engulfed in flames.

"I'd never seen anything like it. It took on a life of its own. Flames were 150 feet in the air," he said.

Satellite imagery from the National Weather Service and photos posted on social media showed winds had carried the smoke from the fire 75 miles into the Bay Area, blanketing the region in an eerie yellow haze.

The Yolo County fire is one of several burning throughout the state.

Last year's massive firestorm that swept through Northern California wine country scorched at least 245,000 acres, killing 44 people and destroying roughly 8,400 homes and other buildings.

Cal Fire investigators determined that downed power lines owned by PG&E and falling tree limbs largely were responsible for setting off the fires.

(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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