High Winds, Little Rainfall Mean January Wildfires in Northern California

On the heels of California’s worst-ever fire season, January provided little respite as at least five fires broke out in the north part of the state — highlighting a startling lack of precipitation with winter nearly half over. 

(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) — California has experienced some of its worst fire seasons in recorded history the past few years, but one source of solace is that by January residents can finally relax until mid-summer. 

Not so this January, as four fires in Santa Cruz County sparked by high winds prompted evacuations Tuesday while PG&E enacted another round of preemptive power shutoffs in select areas of the state.

Cal Fire crews also responded to a fire in San Mateo County on Tuesday afternoon that had grown to 10 acres with zero containment. 

The Freedom Fire broke out just north of Watsonville in Santa Cruz County, driven by extremely high winds and scorching about five to six acres of timber. The area was spared during the CZU Lightning Complex fires, a massive wildfire caused by a late-August lighting storm that burned in the Santa Cruz Mountains spanning Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. 

But Tuesday, residents of Bens Way, Nunes Road, Gillette Road and Halton Lane were ordered to evacuate as with sheriff’s deputies went door to door in some cases to encourage residents to flee. The California Highway Patrol closed Larkin Valley Road. 

Residents living along Panther Ridge outside of the town of Boulder Creek, tucked high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, were also ordered to evacuate Tuesday morning. The Panther Fire has scorched about 15 acres and stands at 30% contained according to the latest update. About 20 buildings have been evacuated. 

The Empire Fire sparked near Boulder Creek and has scorched about six acres. No evacuations have been ordered. 

In Ben Lomond, also in the San Lorenzo Valley just outside of Santa Cruz, the Fanning Fire burned about 15 acres with 30% containment, according to the latest update. 

There were two other fires in the vicinity of Bonny Doon, called the Bonny Complex fires, but those have been quelled as of the latest update. 

In San Mateo County, the North Butano Fire has scorched 10 acres in a remote area of the forest, meaning no structures are threatened. 

“We have several fires within the CZU Lighting Complex burn area that are difficult to access due to many downed trees,” Cal Fire said in a statement Tuesday. “All CZU engines and personnel are committed to this event today, and local government resources are committed as well.”

The CZU Lightning Complex was one of the most destructive fires in the region’s history, blackening more than 86,000 acres, destroying approximately 1,500 structures and killing one person. Many of the fires that broke out Tuesday were in and around burn scars of that fire. 

While the unseasonable fires can be partly attributed to the high-wind event, they also speak to the lack of rainfall for the region as of mid-January. 

Santa Cruz has received about 4 inches of rain to date, according to the Santa Cruz City water department. The average rainfall for this point in the water year is just a tick below 13 inches. 

The four unseasonable fires come on the heels of the worst fire season in California history, during a time when many states across the American West witnessed a record number of acres burned.

In 2020, conflagrations across California killed 31 people, burned more than 10,000 structures at the cost of approximately $12 billion and scorched a staggering 4.1 million acres. 

The August Complex Fire in Northern California became the first in recorded U.S. history to exceed 1 million acres. 

Lawmakers have played political football as to the causes of the intensity and duration of the fire, with some blaming years of fire suppression and poor forest management while others lament the ravages of a changing climate. 

Most independent experts say both are to blame. 

There had been hope that a wet winter combined with more safety precautions implemented by public utilities would mean a calmer year for fire in 2021. But with a series of fires breaking out in the year’s first month, the prospects thus far are grim. 

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