The Lassen National Forest has been hit hard by wildfires. (Photo courtesy of Cal OES)
The Lassen National Forest has been hit hard by wildfires. (Photo courtesy of Cal OES)

Update, 4:15 p.m. Thursday: The wildfires raging in Northern California have settled down, thanks to a big shift in the weather, which has brought rain and moisture, and a huge infusion of firefighting personnel and equipment. As a result, KQED will no longer be adding to its running “California Fire Update” post.

Anyone who wants to keep informed on the status of these fires can check Cal Fire, the website of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and InciWeb, the incident information system of the U.S. Forest Service.

Also, be sure to check out some of the work KQED has done on the fires, including a story and video on smokejumpers, NASA’s satellite images of the fires and a real-time California wildfire tracker.

Update, 5:40 p.m. Wednesday: The Shasta County town of Burney, which was being menaced by the Eiler Fire, can now relax. The wildfire is 35 percent contained. So far, it has consumed 31,085 acres.

Shasta County’s other large blaze, the Bald Fire, is 68 percent contained and has burned 39,926 acres. As Cal Fire described it: “Fire behavior minimal overnight with wet airmass bringing higher humidities and lower temperatures.”

Meanwhile, Molly Samuel of KQED reports that 240 California National Guard soldiers are training to work on the ground fighting wildfires.

“They’re going through a week of pretty intensive instruction by Cal Fire to work as hand crews,” said Capt. Kara Seipmann. The guard pitches in almost every summer, she said, but the last time troops were called up to help out on the ground was in 2007.

The National Guard troops will clear brush ahead of a fire and mop up hot spots. The Guard has also sent helicopters and airplanes to aid in firefighting efforts. Seipmann said it’s too early in the weeklong training to know what fires the troops would be sent to.

“It’s going to depend on the disposition of the fire and the weather and the ability of state agencies to fight it without us,” she said.

The U.S. Forest Service will soon have to tap into programs designed to prevent wildfires so that it can meet the expenses of fighting this summer’s round of fires.

Here’s a good fire roundup from the Associated Press:

Wildfires, like earthquakes, are a frightening fact of life in California, just more predictable. So as thousands of firefighters made progress in taming more than a dozen blazes that have pockmarked the northern half of the state, fire officials and anxious residents of drought-afflicted rural communities breathed a shallow sigh of relief they knew might not last long.

Light rain and an infusion of personnel and equipment from as far away as San Diego allowed fire crews to continue gaining momentum Wednesday on a pair of wildfires that exploded over the weekend in a national forest filled with moisture-starved fallen trees and have burned more than 110 square miles, officials said. The two fires burning about 7 miles apart in Shasta and Lassen counties were among nine major wildfires that erupted in a 24-hour period last week, most sparked by lightning.

Firefighters “are a finite resource, and we hit all the fires that we can as quickly as we can and we are successful most of the time keeping the fires at less than 10 acres,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Mackensen. “When you get that many fires in remote locations and they all hit at once, we ran out of folks essentially, so they got bigger and we had to play catch-up a little bit.”

Eight homes, a historic post office and a restaurant were lost in the smaller of the two fires that started in Lassen National Forest and threatened Burney, a town of about 3,000 people in Shasta County. An evacuation advisory for Burney was lifted on Tuesday, and about 2,000 or so people in nearby communities who were under mandatory evacuation orders were allowed to return home, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Tom Piranio said.

“Firefighters continue to make great progress in strengthening containment lines and mopping up hot spots around the perimeter,” he said.

The spread of the second blaze had also slowed enough that people living in its path who had been evacuated since Friday night were allowed to return home on Tuesday afternoon.

Cooler temperatures and scattered showers also helped firefighters hold the line on four fires that have torched 51 square miles of wilderness and range and prompted evacuations in the state’s farthest reaches, including one that started in Oregon.

The precipitation was a mixed blessing, however, since thunderstorms forecast for Northern California and Southern Oregon could bring winds that would exacerbate existing fires and lightning that could cause new ones. And after Wednesday, the regions were expected to heat up again through next week. In Washington, two large fires grew amid warnings of strong winds and low relative humidity on Tuesday.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, said after surveying the Shasta and Lassen fires from a helicopter on Tuesday.

Officials in California, Oregon and Washington have been warning the public about a heightened danger for summer wildfires because of unusually dry conditions and above normal temperatures, so the latest flurry did not come as a surprise. In Northern California, air and ground fire crews have been staffed at peak levels and on high alert since the spring, so when the weekend blazes broke out, “we just threw everything we could at them,” Ghilarducci said.

“I have to tell you, it could have been a heck of a lot worse,” he added. “If we were in more populated areas, there would have been greater losses.”

The drought made it harder for aerial fire crews to secure water to douse the flames of the last few days, fire officials said.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho said Tuesday that there have been fewer wildfires than usual across the nation so far this year and they have burned a combined area that is less than half the size of the 10-year average. In the West, however, it’s a different story.

In Oregon and Washington, the number of fires is running 15 percent above average and they have consumed nearly three times as much land.

The number of wildfires in Northern California is at 123 percent of average, but the amount of acreage left blackened is almost half of the decade average since many of the blazes have been small.

In Southern California, where the worst fires typically come with the fall Santa Ana winds, the number of fires has been just under average and the number of acres burned two-thirds below average.

The fire center predicted this month that given the record dry fuels on forest floors and no significant rain in the forecast, the potential for significant fires will remain high in California, Oregon and Washington though at least September. But drought, or the absence of it, is only one of the factors that drives destructive fires, spokesman Mike Ferris said.

“The stage is set for large, intense wildfires in many areas due to long-term factors, such as climate change, hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease outbreaks, invasive species infestations, and drought,” Ferris said. “When short-term weather conditions come into play — such as above-average temperatures, low relative humidities, high winds, and lightning, we can expect to see extreme fire behavior.”

The Record Searchlight in Redding says the fire camps set up to fight the Bald and Eiler fires are a major presence:

The number of firefighters combating the Bald and Eiler fires burning in eastern Shasta County has grown to dwarf the populations of many of the towns they’re assigned to protect.

About 2,000 firefighters are currently living at the Intermountain Fairgrounds in McArthur, a small town along Highway 299 near the Modoc County line with a population of just 338 residents, according to 2010 Census data.

Here’s the latest on other major fires still burning on Wednesday:

  • Day Fire (Modoc County): Burning north of the Eiler and Bald fires, has burned about 13,047 acres and is 75 percent contained.
  • Beaver Fire (Siskiyou County):Burning west of Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon border and about 20 miles northwest of Yreka. Rapidly growing fire has burned just over 15,230 acres, prompting evacuation advisories. It’s still only 5 percent contained.
  • The July Complex (Siskiyou County): A group of fires burning in mountainous terrain about 40 miles west of Mount Shasta. The fires have burned a total of 8,144 acres and are 13 percent contained.
  • Little Deer Fire (Siskiyou County): Burning northeast of Weed along U.S. 97. The fire has consumed 5,279 acres and is 77 percent contained.
  • The Lodge Lightning Complex (Mendocino County): Burning northwest of Laytonville. Has consumed about 4,000 acres with 20 percent containment.
  • El Portal Fire, in Yosemite National Park, is holding steady at 4,689 acres. It’s fully contained, and fire crews are being released to respond to other incidents
  • French Fire, in Sierra National Forest on the upper San Joaquin River, has burned 13,835 acres and is reported 60 percent contained. Officials say the fire was caused by an abandoned campfire and are seeking the public’s help in finding the persons responsible.

Other fire-related news from the Associated Press:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that about $400 million to $500 million in projects will have to be put on hold in what has become a routine exercise toward the end of the fiscal year. He predicted that the money set aside strictly for firefighting will run out by the end of August.

“When we begin to run out of money we have to dip into the very programs that will reduce the risk of these fires over time,” Vilsack said in a telephone interview with AP.

Some 30 large fires are working their way through federal and state forests in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. With lawmakers back home for the August recess and the public’s attention focused on those efforts, Vilsack is lobbying for the administration’s request for an additional $615 million to fight wildfires this fiscal year and next.

Lawmakers from both parties generally agree the current funding model is broken. They say it’s self-defeating to curtail activities designed to prevent forest fires, such as thinning overgrown forests and clearing underbrush, to cover the full costs of fighting blazes that have become more destructive over the past decade. But there is disagreement about how to fix the problem.

The administration and some lawmakers have called for tapping the government’s fund for battling natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes to pay for the most devastating forest fires. They say the change would not impact the government’s response to other types of disasters.

The House Budget Committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, has said it would be better to work within existing spending caps to fully fund both the firefighting efforts and prevention work.

That would mean finding savings through other the Department of Agriculture and Interior programs. House Republicans also argue that a bill they passed last year requiring greater timber harvesting on federal lands could help reduce the amount of money needed for fire prevention efforts. The administration opposed that bill saying it undermined several laws and rules established to protect the environment.

House Democrats overwhelmingly support efforts to treat the worst wildfires like other natural disasters. Vilsack said it’s important to put the most devastating wildfires on a par with other natural disasters. “And that’s what a forest fire started by lightning most definitely is,” Vilsack said.

He is also making the case that diverting money to fight forest fires isn’t just a problem for the Western states. He said it forces officials to scale back forestry projects in every state.

Over the past two years, the Forest Service has transferred about $950 million from other accounts to battle fires, and over the past 12 years, the amount transferred totals about $3.2 billion.

Update, Tuesday 2 p.m.:

Update, 1 p.m. Tuesday: There’s good news overall on most of the state’s various fire fronts, thanks to light rain and increased humidity, although the threat of thunderstorms could complicate things.

The Eiler Fire in Shasta County is now 20 percent contained and has burned 28,600 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The conflagration, 4 miles south of the town of Burney, is likely to be contained by Aug. 20, fire officials say. Now 1,171 firefighters are battling the blaze.

Cal Fire reports that the Bald Fire, also in Shasta County, is 30 percent contained and has consumed 39,850 acres.

It burned less actively into the night and spread mostly to the south. Although the cooler and wetter weather is calming things down, there’s a chance of thunderstorms, which could bring winds and instability.

Fire officials don’t expect containment until Aug. 17. The Bald Fire began on July 30. There are 949 fire personnel fighting the blaze.

Here’s the latest on other major fires still burning on Tuesday:

  • Oregon Gulch (Siskiyou County): Burning on the California-Oregon border east of Interstate 5 and about 20 miles southeast of Ashland. The fire has burned roughly 36,723 acres and is 30 percent contained.
  • Day Fire (Modoc County): Burning north of the Eiler and Bald fires, has burned about 13,047 acres and is 65 percent contained.
  • Beaver Fire (Siskiyou County): Burning west of Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon border and about 20 miles northwest of Yreka. Rapidly growing fire has burned just over 11,488 acres, prompting evacuation advisories. It’s still only 2 percent contained.
  • The July Complex (Siskiyou County): A group of fires burning in mountainous terrain about 40 miles west of Mount Shasta. The fires have burned a total of 6,897 acres and are uncontained.
  • Little Deer Fire (Siskiyou County): Burning northeast of Weed along U.S. 97. The fire has consumed 5,279 acres and is 60 percent contained.
  • The Lodge Lightning Complex (Mendocino County): Burning northwest of Laytonville. Has consumed about 3,527 acres with 15 percent containment.
  • El Portal Fire, in Yosemite National Park, is holding steady at 4,689 acres. It’s fully contained, and fire crews are being released to respond to other incidents
  • French Fire, in Sierra National Forest on the upper San Joaquin River, has burned 13,717 acres and is reported 40 percent contained. Officials say the fire was caused by an abandoned campfire and are seeking the public’s help in finding the persons responsible.

Update, 10:30 p.m. Monday: We’ve updated the post to reflect latest reported statistics (below) from federal and state fire agencies.

Update, 4:50 p.m. Monday: There are a couple of major shifts affecting the series of big fires that sprang up in Northern California late last week. As we reported this morning, the weather is better for firefighting: overcast, cooler, moister with a chance of rain. There’s also been a major influx of firefighting help, especially on the Eiler and Bald fires burning in what some locals call the “intermountain” region northeast of Redding.

Sunday, a total of fewer than 1,000 personnel were fighting the two fires. The Bald Fire grew to a shade under 40,000 acres — about 30 percent larger than the city of San Francisco — and was reported just 5 percent contained Sunday evening. The Eiler Fire, at just under 26,000 acres, had made a weekend run for the town of Burney and was reported completely uncontained.

With crews rushing to the area from around the state, including engine companies from San Francisco and Marin counties, the force fighting the two fires Monday totals more than 2,100, with about 1,170 on the Eiler Fire and 950 on the Bald Fire (as reported late Monday night). Containment on the Bald Fire had grown from 5 percent to 20 percent; the Eiler Fire officially remains at 0 percent contained.

Those incidents are just two among half a dozen fires of 10,000 acres or more burning around the state (a week ago, there were no fires of that magnitude in California) and numerous smaller fires in challenging, remote terrain.

Jim Mackensen, the U.S. Forest Service public information officer working the Eiler and Bald fires, said from the Shasta County town of McArthur on Monday that one of the main challenges facing fire managers now is finding crews to respond.

“We are at in Northern California what we call Preparedness Level Five, which is our highest level of preparedness,” Mackensen said. “We are bringing in resources from all over the country, flying in hand crews, having engines drive out. We’re trying to catch up, but it’s a major campaign right now.”

Fire managers briefing firefighting crew leaders Monday morning in McArthur said that some progress had been made in bulldozing new fire lines and setting backfires to prevent the Eiler Fire from continuing its run north to Burney, a town of about 3,500. Nevertheless, they said, the fire still has a very high potential to grow.

That’s in part because of the impact of the state’s prolonged drought, which has left even living vegetation ready to burn and turned dead brush and wood on forest floors into tinder just awaiting a spark.

“It’s bad. The fuels are very, very dry,” Mackensen said. “The analogy I try to put in people’s mind is that we measure fuel moisture — how much moisture is in these dead fuels on the forest floor. When you go to your Home Depot lumberyard, your two-by-fours and four-by-fours come from the sawmill at about 9 percent water volume in it. The fuels on the forest floor in most of this area now has a water volume of anywhere from 3 to 6 percent. So the fuels you find lying around on the forest floor are drier than what you’d find in a lumberyard, so it really does not take a lot to get started.”

And that brings us back to the weather. Monday’s cooler, overcast conditions come with the threat of thunderstorms. The upside to that: a somewhat small chance of wetting rains that could make help firefighters. The downside: the potential for winds that can supercharge fires and dry lightning that could spark new blazes.

Other major fires burning Monday:

  • Oregon Gulch (Siskiyou County): Burning on the California-Oregon border east of Interstate 5 and about 20 miles southeast of Ashland. The fire has burned roughly 36,500 acres, including 9,500 in California, and is 20 percent contained.
  • Day Fire (Modoc County): Burning north of the Eiler and Bald fires, has burned about 13,000 acres and is 60 percent contained.
  • Beaver Fire (Siskiyou County): Burning west of Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon border and about 20 miles northwest of Yreka. Rapidly growing fire has burned just over 11,000 acres. It’s 2 percent contained.
  • The July Complex (Siskiyou County): A group of fires burning in mountainous terrain about 40 miles west of Mount Shasta. The fires have burned a total of 6,900 acres and are uncontained.
  • Little Deer Fire (Siskiyou County): Burning northeast of Weed along U.S. 97. The fire has consumed 5,279 acres and is 54 percent contained.
  • The Lodge Lightning Complex (Mendocino County): Burning northwest of Laytonville. Has consumed about 3,527 acres with 15 percent containment.
  • El Portal Fire, in Yosemite National Park, is holding steady at 4,689 acres. It’s reported to be 96 percent contained, and fire crews are being released to respond to other incidents
  • French Fire, in Sierra National Forest on the upper San Joaquin River, has burned 13,267 acres and is reported 40 percent contained. Officials say the fire was caused by an abandoned campfire and are seeking the public’s help in finding the persons responsible.

Update, Monday 8:25 a.m.: We’re still waiting for updated acreage numbers on the major fires burning in Shasta, Siskiyou and Modoc counties, but cooler, moister, overcast weather looks like it will give firefighters a bit of a break.

But while temperatures are expected to stay in the low to mid-80s throughout much of the region, with lighter winds and higher humidity than over the weekend, the National Weather Service has issued red-flag warnings because of the threat of thunderstorms beginning later this morning. Although scattered rain is forecast, too, the danger posed by the storms is dry lightning — the culprit in the big fires that started across the northern part of California late last week and have blown up into major conflagrations.

We’ll update specific fires later, but here are a couple of other links for Monday morning fire information:

Inciweb: List of California fires in federal jurisdiction Cal Fire: List of all current incidents (mostly state jurisdiction)

You can find our earlier fire coverage of the past week’s here:

California Fire Update: Big North State Fires Continue to Spread

KQED’s Ted Goldberg contributed to this post.

Related

  • ShastaRaven1

    Thanks for this great reporting, Dan!

  • Rosemary Crowe

    Thanks, more up to date than our local TV !

  • Dan Brekke

    You’re welcome! Hope you and yours are safe.

  • http://geoengineeringactionnetworknews.wordpress.com Kim Moore

    When are these news agencies and our political representatives going to
    deal with/discuss the issue of the chemical incendiaries that have been
    used in our region continually in the ongoing solar radiation management
    operations aka geo engineering our climate?

    Fire officials are
    noticing the impacts as well, yet no one is saying a word publicly,
    why, who’s controlling this silence? How do we force the discussion of
    these serious issues?

    For many months a group of women worked
    tirelessly speaking to county officials about disclosure/testing to
    prove what we are finding in other test results. After receiving no
    response we began gathering experts to present evidence in order to help
    these officials comprehend what is happening.

    On July 15th,
    2014 at the conclusion of a 4 hearing with the numerous experts we had
    gathered the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously 5-0 to
    further investigate testing for the chemicals used in geoengineering
    operations aka solar radiation management, conducted continually in the
    skies above our region.

    We must demand and we deserve a complete investigation at every level. This is urgent, it can no longer be ignored.

    Team #GEANN

    You can find us at facebook page GeoEngineering Action Network News #GEANN

  • beachmama

    My son and the family are at the Graham cabin across from the Big Bend Lodge in Leggett, CA Fire fighters have cut a fire ring around the cabin as a final effort to save the hand build, nearly 100 year old family cabin. This fire has burned 5,400 & 30% contained. Although this isn’t the biggest fire it’s intense and difficult as they’re trying to fight this fire in steep canyons and wildlands. The Graham cabin sits on 80 acres of old growth redwoods. The river is extremely low. Firefighters are here from L.A. 1,700 fire fighters, 151 engines, 30 dozers and 15 helicopters. Many untold numbers of wild animals have perished and are displaced. http://cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_details_info?incident_id=1015

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