Authorities urge caution, preparation for 2024 wildfires

The first really big wildfires of 2024 broke out in California last month. At the start of June, two firefighters were injured, a home went up in flames and parts of Tracy were evacuated as more than 14,000 acres burned in the Corral Fire in San Joaquin County. That was June 1.

Two weeks later, the Post Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties swept across 15,500 acres, injuring one person, destroying a structure and forcing about 1,200 people near Gorman to flee their homes as the fire burned a pathway following Interstate 5. The Sites Fire in Colusa County burned another 19,000 acres starting on the same day, June 15. By the end of spring on June 20, wildfires had burned nearly 90,000 total acres in California. The Thompson fire in Oroville has just slowed down enough today so the evacuees can start returning home.

They’re just getting started.


Wildfire Numbers Jump as Summer Starts

Last week, Tropical Storm Alberto inundated parts of Louisiana and Texas and finally tailed off north into the Pacific Ocean. From there, it brought breezy conditions to the Golden State.

Those mild winds arrived just in time to help trigger a red flag warning for wildfires from the National Weather Service. Combined with a heatwave bringing at least a week of triple-digit temperatures to the Central Valley and drier-than-usual air with humidity readings dipping into the single digits, the state is primed for a disaster.

The warning is still in effect as of this writing. It runs through noon on Friday. The weather shows very little sign of changing, so expect the red flag to continue flying. It’s already been up for 34 days, starting on June 16.

In 2024 so far – according to an update on July 2 – 2,872 wildfires have burned close to 134,000 acres of wilderness. About a third of that acreage went up in smoke in the last 14 days. In just the two weeks since summer’s official start, 44,000 acres have been burned by wildfire.

Right now, thousands of residents of Oroville are under evacuation orders as the Thompson Fire burns at the edge of that Northern California city. The fire has spread to almost 4,000 acres and is only 29% contained. The cause of the fire is under investigation.


There’s No Fire Season Anymore in Tulare County

When asked if this was an unusually early start to the wildfire season, Savannah Birchfield, a fire prevention specialist for Cal Fire’s Visalia fire station denied it.

“We don’t really have a fire season anymore,” she said. “We have a fire year. I hope it isn’t busy.”

When Tropical Storm Alberto blew itself out in the Pacific, it did more than help worsen fire conditions into red flag warning conditions. It also sent a dry lightning storm into the Central Valley and on into the Sierra Nevada. More than 1,000 lightning strikes fell. Many of the fires they started are still active.

“The one I’ve been hearing the most about is the Power Incident,” Birchfield said. “That one was in Kernville. It’s out already, they’re doing mop-up on it.”

“Mopping up” means completely containing the edges of the burned area. Luckily the fire was small, under 200 acres. It was extinguished quickly. Cal Fire aims to contain fires at 10 acres or less.

“We try to keep them very small,” Birchfield said.


Fresno County Hard Hit by June Lightning Storm

Keeping the fires small hasn’t been possible in unlucky Fresno County, where the majority of the lightning strikes hit. The storm sparked several fires and dropped no rain to slow them down. They have since merged into a single conflagration.

“The Fresno June Lightning Complex, it’s multiple fires east of the Sanger area. It was four or five fires that burned into each other,” Birchfield said. “Three of them are contained. The final fire, which is the Bolt Fire, is 93% contained.”

Before it was brought mostly under control, the wildfire took down a neighborhood of 11,000 acres of grassland, according to data updated late on the morning of July 3. The fire began on June 24 and has been burning for 11 days so far. At this point, it’s no longer gaining ground.

“When we say containment, that basically means getting a perimeter around the fire and keeping it from spreading,” Birchfield said. “My understanding is the progression is stopped. I would say it’s in the mop-up stage.”

Cal Fire in Tulare County has sent Incident Management Team 5 to aid the firefighting efforts there. It is not involved in fighting Fresno County’s other major ongoing fire, the Basin Fire. Because this fire is on federal land, battling it is out of Cal Fire’s hands.

“This is near Balch Camp, east of Pine Flat Lake. It’s northeast of where the June Lightning Complex is,” Birchfield said on July 3. “We have this listed as 13,938 acres. This is a Sierra National Forest incident.”

As of July 4, the Basin Fire had grown only slightly, topping 14,000 acres. It is only 46% contained. The fire has burned for nine days, beginning on June 26.


Dangerous Fire Conditions Likely to Continue Through the Summer

Daniel Swain – an expert at UCLA on climate change and its effects on wildfires, droughts, storms and flooding – predicts the conditions that make large, frequent wildfires likely here will continue for the foreseeable future.

“In fact, given a confluence of factors, I would expect very high fire risk to persist throughout this heatwave and beyond for a few different reasons,” he wrote recently on

The fuel that feeds wildfires in lower elevations, those below 5,000 feet, is particularly dry and well cured by the unrelenting sun this year. Some parts of Northern California, Swain reports, the flammability rating of fine, herbaceous fuel is approaching an all-time high. At the same time in some areas of the state, moisture levels of that fuel will reach seasonal lows not seen in decades.

And there’s a whole lot of it. Both 2022 and 2023 had wet and mild growing seasons to start the year. That resulted in a larger-than-normal fuel load.

Then there’s the Fourth of July fireworks displays.

“This will be particularly consequential since this year these potential firework ignitions will co-occur with a major heatwave and pre-existing high fire risk conditions – which is certainly not the case every year,” Swain wrote. “Thus, the stage is set for some potentially problematic new wildfires in California and much of the West this week.”

And perhaps well beyond.


Fire Insurance Impossible to Find for High-Risk Areas

As the fire danger in California continues to increase, so too do the premiums property owners are forced to pay. Insurance policies are still available to most homeowners that cover damage from wildfires, house fires, dry lightning strikes and similar occurrences.

It’s a different story for those whose homes are in high-risk areas of the state. For them, a state program – the FAIR Plan – that forces insurers to provide them coverage. But it isn’t cheap. A story by CalMatters from January tells the story of one homeowner who’s had to rely on FAIR since 2017. Since then, his premiums have nearly tripled, going from $399 to $967. He’s considering leaving the state.

The FAIR Plan was established in 1968, and is funded by a pool of insurers licensed to do business in California. New regulations established in April of 2023 were intended to lower rates based on the state’s so-called Safer from Wildfire framework. It grants discounts to homeowners who take precautions to reduce their fire exposure.

Meanwhile, insurers and their agents are reluctant to discuss the state of their industry as it relates to fire insurance cost and availability in California. A person with insider knowledge of the industry was very hesitant to say anything on the subject for the record. She made it clear that major insurance companies are carefully guarding their image. The interviewee said the company her office represents only allows its agents to comment within strict limits, and talking to the media is tightly controlled from above.

Talking to reporters must be approved by the corporation.


You Can Safeguard Your Family, Pets and Property

The most important thing Californians can do to protect against wildfire damage is prepare for it ahead of time. It starts with gardening.

“Anywhere there’s vegetation there’s a possibility of wildfire,” Cal Fire’s Birchfield said.

Wildfire is often considered a wilderness phenomenon, but it isn’t limited to areas outside of the population centers. Even though it seems unlikely, wildfires can and do break out in urbanized settings. Giving buildings a 10-foot buffer – a defensible space – is key to keeping them standing. The ground should be completely bare in that zone, Birchfield said.

Defensible spaces should also be created for other fuel sources such as woodpiles and propane fuel tanks. Homeowners should also consider using more “hardened” materials in their yards. Rocks instead of grass will lessen fire danger, as will planting native, drought-resistant plants.

There are other steps to take as well, such as putting fine mesh over any opening into a home’s attic spaces. This can prevent sparks from entering the home should a wildfire break out. There are other not-so-obvious steps to take for preventing wildfire damage recommended by Cal Fire.

“I would recommend people going to the Cal Fire website and creating an action plan for their families,” Birchfield said. “It’s a really good tool for people who want to be prepared.”

Cal Fire’s wildfire preparation and prevention page is found at It provides instructions for creating defensible spaces and a family wildfire action plan, including help for talking to young children about fire safety. Finally, it provides information about how to be ready to bug out if an evacuation order is issued.

Cal Fire also offers an app that can build a personalized wildfire response plan for families.


Fire Prep Makes a Big Difference in an Emergency

While a wildfire is raging close to your home is not an ideal time for thinking up a reaction plan. In fact, it’s probably too late.

So, before a disaster strikes is the time to prepare. Birchfield recommends knowing where your irreplaceable things are, as you’ll probably want to protect them or have them with you. Those include documents, ATM and credit cards, cash and family photos and heirlooms.

You should also make sure your batteries work in your smoke detectors, keep a list of emergency contacts in your car and on your phone, and let your neighbors know you have a plan and what it includes.

“They can say how many people are in the house, how many pets, things like that,” Birchfield said. “In the Tulare County area, we do have a lot of larger animals, so knowing the evacuation arrangements is important.”

Another critical safety measure is having an arranged meeting place for family members, especially the younger ones, in the event an evacuation is ordered.

“We don’t want people to be separated,” Birchfield said. “Especially with younger children, we want accountability for where everyone is.”

She also advises everyone to keep an eye on Cal Fire’s incident map to stay aware of where fires are burning. Cal Fire also has a very active social media presence providing constantly updated information on fires and fire safety.

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