SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Red flag alarms of extreme fire danger have subsided, but hot, dry weather continued to challenge firefighters battling more than two dozen wildfires across California on Saturday as the state is nearing a surprising milestone: 4 million acres burned by fires this year.
The state is about 20,000 acres from reaching an unprecedented figure, fire officials said. Meanwhile, two major fires that killed four people and incinerated hundreds of homes in the wine region and the far north continued to burn.
The powerful winds expected to have driven the flames by Wednesday had not materialized, and extreme fire danger warnings for hot, dry and gusty weather expired Saturday morning as a layer of fog spread. Clearer skies in some areas have allowed large tankers to retard a fall after being sidelined by smoky conditions several days earlier.
But with California a powder keg of dead trees and dry shrubs after weeks of scorching weather and years of drought, wildfires could erupt in rural areas, grasslands and dense forests even without the push of the winds.
On Saturday temperatures above normal and low humidity persisted, increasing the danger of fire.
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A cooling trend is expected to start slowly on Sunday. Long-term forecast models hinted at the possibility of rain early next week.
Diminishing winds proved a mixed blessing to Glass Fire in Sonoma and Napa counties. Even as the fire raged, crews had a break as they struggled to keep the flames from leaping containment lines and renew their march to the scenic communities.
“The good news is that with the lack of wind, we didn’t have any constant control issues,” said Ben Nicholls, head of the Cal Fire division.
“However,” he added, “due to the lack of wind, the smoke remained in place” and prevented the planes from attacking the fire.
Evacuation orders for many of Calistoga’s 5,000 residents were reduced to warnings on Friday, even as trees and some houses on the edge of the city were burning.
The fire, which had destroyed some 600 homes and other buildings, still threatened some 29,000 homes.
The fire burned 97.4 square miles (252 square kilometers) and was only 10 percent contained.
In Shasta County, on the north end of the state, the Zogg fire that started Sunday killed four people and destroyed nearly 180 structures. Containment increased slightly to 57% contained.
Two detained firefighters were injured on Friday afternoon and were flown from a steep area in the northern zone of the fire to a local hospital, crash commander Sean Kavanaugh said.
One was released while the other remained hospitalized on Saturday, Kavanaugh said.
Overall, the fires killed 31 people and destroyed 8,200 structures in California this year. Many of the largest fires were caused by lightning in mid-August, and most of the destroyed surface has since arrived.
Some 17,000 firefighters are still fighting nearly two dozen major fires.
Numerous studies have linked large fires in the United States to climate change due to the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.