Wildfire season ‘far from over’ even as Caldor Fire situation looks better, top official warns
"We are on par with where we were last year. That’s sobering. That is the new reality," said Cal Fire Director Chief Thom Porter Tuesday.
Even as firefighters began to get the upper hand on the Caldor Fire — which at one point appeared poised to burn through the iconic Lake Tahoe basin — wildfire season is “far from over” as meteorologists predict dry, windy weather lasting through December, California’s top fire official warned Tuesday.
With about 2 million acres burned statewide so far this year, conditions fueling extreme fire activity are not expected to abate for the next three months. Residents should not take firefighters’ success protecting homes from the Caldor and Dixie fires as a sign to let their guard down, Cal Fire Director Chief Thom Porter said in a news conference Tuesday.
“We are on par with where we were last year. That’s sobering. That is the new reality of what we’re looking at,” Porter said. “We’re right smack in the middle of wildfire peak season.”
Massive fires have already been burning in California for weeks, with more than 15,000 firefighters currently assigned to 14 major wildfires statewide. In mid-July, the Dixie Fire exploded north of the community of Paradise and had burned through nearly 920,000 acres as of Tuesday, making it the second-biggest fire in California history.
Just a month later, national attention turned to the Caldor Fire in El Dorado County, which leveled the town of Grizzly Flats and marched toward the Tahoe basin. The blaze forced the evacuation of more than 45,000 people in both California and Nevada and had charred 216,646 acres of land as of Tuesday.
The number of Caldor Fire evacuees has since dwindled to about 9,500, as people trickled back into the region over the past few days, according to the California Office of Emergency Services. The Dixie and Caldor fires were about 59% and 49% contained, respectively, as of Tuesday morning. The two fires have together destroyed nearly 2,300 structures.
Damage assessment teams were combing both fire zones and collecting information to send to the Federal Emergency Management Agency this week, said California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci. Those who lost property should contact their insurance company and local assistance centers but refrain from removing fire-related debris before checking with county environmental offices, he said, because the state cannot take over cleaning operations once they have started.
“We know that these are difficult times,” Ghilarducci said.
People who are not fully insured or not insured and live primarily in Lassen, Plumas, Placer and Nevada counties may already be eligible for FEMA assistance and can visit www.disasterassistance.gov and wildfirerecovery.caloes.ca.gov for more information.
Porter praised the enormous effort from crews that has staved off flames from densely populated areas near Lake Almanor and Lake Tahoe.
“Chester, Lake Almanor West, the Peninsula, Westwood, Susanville, Janesville, all protected — all still intact, all economic centers of those communities have been protected during this set of fires,” Porter said, ticking off previously evacuated communities. “Pollock Pines, Sly Park, Meyers, South Lake Tahoe — all protected.”
While “some have started looking forward” as though fire season is over, Porter said, firefighters tackled 32 fresh blazes on Monday alone, while other fast-growing fires spurred sudden evacuation orders in communities across Northern California. In Placer County, for instance, the Bridge Fire that started in Auburn over the weekend burned more than 400 acres but was 25% contained as of Tuesday.
Over the next three days, increasing winds and temperatures were forecast to return again to Northern California, prompting a Red Flag warning through 8 p.m. Tuesday for much of Modoc County and parts of Siskiyou County in the northeastern corner of the state.
“We need everybody in California to keep their eyes open,” Porter added. “See smoke? Call it in — don’t expect somebody else already did. And if you get evacuation orders, get out so we can do our job.”