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First Months of California’s Wildfire Season Spark Concern

YOLO COUNTY -- This year has been the worst start to the fire season in California in the last decade, according to acreage figures generated by state and federal fire officials.

A good portion of that assessment is the massive County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties.

So far this year, nearly 200,000 acres have burned and 90,000 of that was the County Fire, which by Wednesday reached 86 percent containment. By contrast, in the last five years, 100,000 acres burned by this time of year.

That's a big concern for Cal Fire, which fights most of the wildland fires in the state.

"Usually our season is from May until October, now they're starting to get earlier, before May and after October," said David Janssen with Cal Fire.

The devastating Napa and Sonoma fires destroyed around 8,900 homes and did not start until October.

The County Fire took off after it was ignited by an electrified fence and was spurred on by triple-digit temperatures, winds and low humidity, which all made for a bad mix. The brief rains in the spring actually made it worse by causing grassy fuels to grow higher.

The light grass fuels are bad enough but the five-year drought has made heavier fuels have lower moisture content. Some brush is at 3 to 4 percent moisture content, verses 10 to 20 percent in other parts of the country.

"You can get 15-foot flame lengths. When this thing moves across the prairies out here and it gets into the chapparal, it preheats it and those are, as well, dry like this," Janssen said.

One wet winter after five years of drought wasn’t as helpful as some thought.

"You can get a lot of rain but if it doesn’t soak into the ground and the plants can’t absorb it you’re still going to end up with this dry fuel," Janssen said.

With more hot weather in the forecast, Cal Fire is warning everyone to be extra cautious around dry fuels, especially after 11 a.m., when things get really hot.

Of course, a bad early fire season isn’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen later in the year but given the state’s history of big fires in October, November and now December, it’s a cause for concern.