Aug 3, 2015 by


Approaching storm lowers temperatures from triple digits to 60s as Cal Fire spokesman says: ‘This fire is doing things that nobody’s ever seen before’
California wildfire
Shoppers load groceries as smoke from the Rocky fire billows over Clearlake, California. Photograph: Noah Berger/EPA

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles

Cooler temperatures are aiding firefighters in battles against wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington but the region’s historic drought has created unprecedented tinderbox conditions.

An approaching storm lowered temperatures in northern California from triple digits to the 60s and 70s on Monday, giving a respite to crews which have spent five days fighting the ravenous, 60,000-acre Rocky fire in near record heat. Higher humidity and slackening winds were also expected to help.

More than 9,000 firefighters have mobilised to quell the Rocky fire and other blazes which flared over the past week amid a lethal cocktail of lightning and tinder-dry vegetation.
California wildfire
An air tanker drops fire retardant along a ridge to help contain the Rocky fire near Clearlake, California, on Sunday. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The speed, intensity and location of some of the fires astonished firefighters, especially the Rocky fire, which ripped across the Lower Lake area north of San Francisco.

“The terrain is steep and rugged with limited access, fuels are at critical levels and there is little to no fire history in the area,” the California department of forestry and fire protection said in an update on Monday.

Spokesmen for the agency called the blaze historic and unprecedented, saying it grew at an explosive rate and raged even at night, when fires usually slow. Four years of drought left the thick brush and oak trees highly combustible.

“This fire is doing things that nobody’s ever seen before. It took a few days to get to 20,000 acres, and all of a sudden, in five hours, it burns to 40,000 acres. Where does that happen except for on TV?” Jason Shanley, a Cal Fire spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times.

By Monday, when it was 12% contained, the blaze had destroyed an estimated 50 structures, threatened another 6,300, and forced the evacuation of more than 13,000 people.

“Everyone we know that lives down there, they have nothing any more. It’s just crazy,” Nikki Shatter, a resident of Clear Lake, told KCAL-TV.

At one point the fire was generating its own winds but cooling conditions should ease that, said Captain Don Camp. “We are hoping we only have to deal with winds from the weather instead of the fire creating its own winds.”

A thunderstorm is expected over mountain ranges in northern California later this week. It could bring cooler temperatures but also lightning, which may spark more fires.

Firefighter Joe Darr douses flames of the Rocky fire along Highway 20 near Clearlake, California, on Sunday. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images3653

On Sunday, California secured extra funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) to help cover the costs of local, state and tribal agencies fighting the blaze. Last week Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for California and activated the state’s national guard to help with disaster recovery.

The cooler weather and rising humidity helped crews in Oregon to tame the 15,000-acre Stouts fire, which burned east of Canyonville. Residents along Upper Cow Creek Road were allowed to return home but hundreds remained under under level 1 (get ready) or level 2 (get set to leave) evacuation notices. The crews braced for a resumption of higher temperatures and lower humidity by mid-week.

Several fires in central Washington state scorched dozens of acres over the weekend, causing hundreds of people to be evacuated and shutting down campgrounds and parts of the Pacific Crest Trail. By Monday crews reported progress in containing them.

David Ruhl, a 38-year-old fire captain from South Dakota, died last Thursday while scouting the Frog fire in Modoc County, on the California-Oregon border.

The married father of two was driving alone and became trapped when erratic winds fanned flames in an unexpected way. Ruhl left his home state to help protect one of California’s majestic forests, Governor Brown said in a statement. “We extend our deepest condolences to his family.”


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