SAN FRANCISCO -- Early fall rain has so far put the kibosh on the big fires that historically crackle through California this time of year, immolating neighborhoods and darkening the skies with smoke.
But that's nothing that a few weeks of sun and a bit of wind couldn't fix, according to fire officials.
"Definitely, with the storm going through, it is lowering the fire danger for the next week or so, but October is still a dangerous month, and we have to watch it closely," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also called Cal Fire. "Even though temperatures have gone down, it is a time when we see the strongest wind patterns."
The San Francisco Bay Area, including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are getting rain now, but Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University, said the storm is going to move quickly across the state and then disappear, leaving plenty of time before winter for flames to crop up.
It will take more than warm weather to turn around a year that has been -- for seasonal firefighters who get paid per fire -- a total flameout. Late snowfall left the ground wet into the summer, and cool temperatures lingered even inland through the normally hot late summer months. Now the rain is back.
The result has been a very mild fire year in California. So far this year, 6,807 fires have blackened 121,047 acres on state and federal land throughout the state, the vast majority in Southern California.
The acreage burned is well below the average dating to 1987.
It is the second wimpy fire season in a row in the state. There were even fewer fires last year, but they burned about the same amount of acreage. Compare that with 2008, when 6,255 fires burned nearly 1.6 million acres, the most in recorded history. So much land burned that year that the smoke blotted out the sun at times.
The lack of fires comes at an opportune time for California. The state budget crisis forced Cal Fire to cut the number of seasonal firefighters from 3,100 to 2,200, reducing from four to three the number of firefighters assigned to engines. In all, Cal Fire has slashed $70 million out of its budget since January. Another $15.8 million will have to be cut by the end of the fiscal year.
Berlant warns against complacency, given the wind's penchant for reversing itself during the fall so that it blows from land toward the ocean. This phenomenon is referred to in Northern California as Diablo winds and in Southern California as Santa Ana winds.
A notable example of this occurred Oct. 20, 1991, when a raging inferno engulfed the Oakland hills, killing 25 people and destroying nearly 3,000 homes. The 20th anniversary of that disaster is later this month.
"We've had times when we've had a storm come through and people put their guard down and then it heats up and a dry wind starts blowing," Berlant said. "It doesn't take much to dry things out and for the big fires to come through."
Still, not many folks are expecting big fires to materialize.
"The fire activity has been lower this year, and we expect it to continue to be lower," said John Heil, the California spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)