'The situation is ripe': California thrust into fire season amid gusty winds, low humidity

Gorman, CA - June 16: On Orwin road fire crews battle a hot spot at the Gorman Brush Fire in northern Los Angeles County on Sunday, June 16, 2024 in Gorman, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Fire crews put out hot spots while battling the Post fire in northern Los Angeles County. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Crews across California were battling a growing number of significant wildfires on Tuesday — including the 15,000-acre Post fire in Los Angeles County — and facing another day of gusty winds and low humidity that can easily spread flames onto tinder-dry fuel.

“The situation is ripe for these brush fires," said Jonathan Torres, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, one of several agencies responding to the Post fire. “These weather conditions are very challenging. It’s making [firefighting] very tough."

Firefighters in Colusa County in Northern California were battling similar conditions Tuesday as the Sites fire had ballooned in size to rival the Post fire by Tuesday evening.

The blaze was at 15,565 acres and only 5% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’re getting into a real fire season and the numbers are starting to show that," said Jason Clay, a spokesperson for Cal Fire Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit. "Despite having all that rain and moisture [the last two winters], the fuels are drying out. You combine that with the winds [and] the low humidities — the fuels are receptive to both ignition and fire spread."

Both fires have been driven by strong northerly winds; they are burning in rural locations, but their quick spread has prompted evacuations.

Read more: Crews battle wildfires near Gorman and Sonoma: Buildings, thousands of acres burn

Despite two years of relatively mild wildfire seasons, Clay said it's particularly important that Californians ready themselves now — sign up for local emergency alerts and pack a go-bag — as officials are warning that these recent blazes may only be a precursor for the rest of the season.

“Wildfires can happen at any time and they can strike fast, as we’ve seen," Clay said. “People need to be prepared."

A large swath of the state started out Tuesday again under red flag warnings, alerts issued due to "dangerous fire-weather conditions." Across the Interstate 5 corridor, the San Gabriel Mountains and Ventura County mountains — including where the Post fire was burning — the warning was in effect through Tuesday night.

"Use extreme caution with anything that can spark a wildfire," the weather service alert said. "Residents near wildland interfaces should be prepared to evacuate if a wildfire breaks out."

Read more: Wildfires in California trigger air quality advisories. Here's what to do

The Post fire, which started Saturday afternoon in Gorman, was 31% contained as of Tuesday evening, according to an update from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It had increased only about 1,000 acres since Monday morning — a welcome change from the exponential growth seen over the weekend, moving across northern L.A. County and into Ventura County.

“We’re making progress for sure," Torres said. "We’re throwing everything we can at it."

The Post fire is threatening power lines, dams and oil pipelines, fire officials said. And steep, rugged terrain continued to be a challenge to firefighters. Cal Fire's Kristian Litz said in a Tuesday afternoon update that the terrain had made it difficult to "get crews inserted," so firefighters were being flown in or brought by boat via Pyramid Lake.

But after days of treacherous conditions, winds were expected to weaken around the Post fire burn area by Wednesday.

“We’re expecting conditions to die down," said Craig Little, another L.A. County Fire Department spokesperson.

Evacuation orders remained in place around Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, where about 1,200 people were evacuated Saturday, and in areas south of Pyramid Lake, including Oak Flat Campground. At least one building, an auto shop, had been destroyed in the fire and one person injured. At least 60 other buildings, the majority of them homes, remained threatened by the fire, with evacuation warnings in effect for nearby communities, including Paradise Ranch Estates, according to L.A. County officials.

But the Post fire is only one of the more than 20 fires that had ignited since Saturday across California, where warm temperatures and strong winds sparked an unofficial kickoff to fire season.

Read more: California braces for heavy wildfire activity this fall: 'They're only going to get worse'

The Sites fire, south of Stonyford, started Monday afternoon and was 5% contained Tuesday evening, according to a Cal Fire update. Several evacuation orders had been issued by Colusa County officials, though it wasn't immediately clear how many people had been forced from their homes. A shelter had been set up at Colusa Veterans Hall for anyone displaced, Cal Fire officials said.

"It's been a wind-driven fire," said Clay, the Cal Fire spokesperson for the unit responding to six counties north of the Bay Area. “In the last three days, our unit has had more acres burned than we did in the three previous years combined."

That unit also responded to the Point fire in Sonoma County's wine country, which remained at just over 1,000 acres Tuesday evening. It was 50% contained.

The Aero fire in Calaveras County also ignited Monday and had grown to 5,425 acres Tuesday evening, and was 23% contained. In an area that hasn't seen a large fire since 2003, Cal Fire officials said the blaze was burning in grass but also oak woodlands — which can create more intense fire conditions. Officials had issued evacuation orders for much of the area immediately west of New Melones Lake, including Copper Cove Village, with several other warnings in place. Shelters have been set up at Mark Twain Elementary School, San Joaquin County Fairgrounds and Valley Springs Veterans Hall.

At least three structures had been destroyed and one damaged in the fire, according to Cal Fire. The flames threatened almost 3,700 buildings.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.