Dry lightning storms sparked several small fires throughout the foothills and left hundreds without power Wednesday, an example of natural weather patterns that can create additional challenges for firefighters in the midst of fire season.
State and local firefighters were dispatched to seven separate lightning-caused fires Wednesday, with the largest being an 84-acre blaze northwest of Copperopolis, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lisa Williams.
“We’ve been told by people on the ground that most of these fires are occurring in Calaveras County,” she said.
The Salt Fire located near the intersection of Hunt and Salt Spring Valley roads was fully contained by 6 p.m. It was first reported about 9:30 a.m. earlier that day.
There were 50 state and local firefighters assigned to the blaze, including five fire engines, two hand crews, a helicopter, bulldozer and water tender.
Other fires caused by the storm were mostly located in remote areas of Calaveras County and extinguished before burning more than a single acre each, according to Williams.
Lightning also hit and damaged a transformer near Darby Russell Road and Wild Ridge Drive, interrupting service to nearly 200 PG&E customers in the Forest Meadows area, Williams said.
Power was restored to all affected customers by this morning.
Cal Fire officials said one lightning strike started a fire in the Columbia area last night, but crews were just dispatched this morning so no information regarding the size of the fire was available. They also notified the U.S. Forest Service about a forest fire spotted near the American Camp Lookout.
The National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” that stated a low-pressure weather system along the coast was creating scattered thunderstorms with little rain and gusty winds, raising the danger-level for wildfires in the southern Mother Lode area through Wednesday night and into this morning.
This year’s unusually dry winter that produced only 50 percent of the typical snowpack in higher elevations of the Central Sierra Nevada has created conditions ripe for an extended fire season, according to Sonora Fire Chief Mike Barrows.
Vegetation that can fuel wildfires is typically at its driest in September but is even drier this year due to the lack of rain, which could combine to create a dangerous situation if winds coming from the northeast kick up later this month or October, Barrows said.
“We just happen to be in the middle of a dry cycle and my expectation is to see the fire season pushing right up into November, possibly into December,” he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service has implemented fire restrictions over the past few weeks in certain high-risk zones of the Stanislaus National Forest, but a series of escaped campfires in higher elevations over the past couple days has given officials another cause for concern.
Since last week, “human carelessness” has caused three different less-than-one-acre fires in the Bear Lake area of the Emigrant Wilderness, a remote part of the forest popular with backpackers that extends northeast about 25 miles from the border of Yosemite National Park.
Helicopters were helping Forest Service and National Park Service hand crews battle one small blaze Tuesday near Bear Lake. Snyder said the area is mostly granite rock with sparse vegetation so the fire was quickly contained and crews were monitoring it mostly by air Wednesday.
“We’ve been fortunate, but may not be so fortunate next time,” Snyder warned. “Winds can kick up and move sparks around to heavier fuels that can spark a larger wildfire.”
Snyder said he’s not aware of any citations being issued for any of the three escaped campfires the battled over the past few days. However, the recent trend prompted the Forest Service to issue a statement reminding visitors about the importance of tending to their campfires.
“We need the public’s help right now,” Snyder said. “We need them to help report these when they see them so we can get on them right away. And we need them to be careful with their campfires and make sure they are fully extinguished and never leave them unattended.”
The Ramsey Fire located about eight miles east of Dorrington off Highway 4 burned 1,137 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest before it was contained on Aug. 23. Forest Service officials determined it was started by an escaped campfire on Aug. 11.
The Forest Service has declined to release any details regarding the citation that was issued to a camper for that fire.