California is bracing for a potentially explosive wildfire season following a winter marked by low snowfall and an unusual cold snap that added dead fuel to the forest floors.
This weekend, some of the state's worst fears were realized as winds whipped up a wildfire around the picturesque resort areas of southern Lake Tahoe. By Monday morning, the Angora fire, which officials believe was triggered Sunday by "human activity," had already consumed at least 220 homes and 2,000 acres.
The state's tinderbox conditions prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last month to call for additional firefighting crews and equipment to be readied for the summer.
Increasingly local officials, fire services, and insurance companies are trying to put more of the onus for prevention on homeowners. "What this fire shows us is that Lake Tahoe is in a very vulnerable situation and that private homeowners should do everything to reduce fire risk on their own property," says Mark Rey, an undersecretary at the US Department of Agriculture.
The conditions heading into summer are some of the worst seen in recent years, according to officials. Most of the Golden State, is experiencing drought, with the most severe conditions in southern California.
Firefighters are preparing for fires that will spread faster and stay more active during the night given the parched landscapes and vegetation killed off in the cold snap.
"This summer is shaping up as a potentially bad fire season. This is the earliest we have gone into fire restrictions in many years," warned Steve Eubanks, forest supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest, two weeks ago. "In dead vegetation, the moisture content is ... less than in kiln-dried lumber."
CAL FIRE, the state agency that handles wildfires, has 57 aircraft at its disposal, including 23 1,200-gallon air tankers and 11 helicopters. Last year, the state added a DC-10 "supertanker" aircraft on a part-time basis. This year, the plane, which can dump 12,000 gallons of fire retardant, will be on standby fulltime.
The governor in May called for the deployment for more fire crews, equipment, and command and control staff, assigned more fire safety inspectors, and called for coordination with the military.
The Angora fire, meanwhile, has brought 460 firefighters from across the region, with that number expected to double.
The fire's costs could be substantial given the housing and tourism near the alpine lake, the largest in North America. So far, some 1,000 residents were evacuated, and 500 more buildings were threatened.
The Forest Service completed seven community wildfire protection plans last year that identify hazards and propose fuel-reduction projects. Field assessments found that a majority of buildings in the Tahoe Basin lacked fire-safe construction technique, nonflammable building materials, and the 30-foot zone of defensible space mandated by state law.
There's "a need to address the fuel situation [thinning of forests]. We need a much more aggressive approach to fuel treatment, and need to do the treatment in the Lake Tahoe basin," says Mr. Rey.
The service and CAL FIRE are working with community groups to get residents to make their properties fire-safe.
In the state's urban areas, officials have been putting the squeeze on property owners. Oakland is stepping up inspections that include enforcement of the 30-foot defensible space where grass can be no longer than six inches and tree branches no lower than six feet. Those who don't comply may receive less attention from firefighters if their homes are threatened, according to local reports.
Insurers are starting to play hardball, too. Allstate prompted an uproar this year when it said it will not sell new homeowner policies in California partly due to wildfire and earthquake danger. State Farm requires California homeowners to clear brush within 300 feet of buildings. Those who don't meet the requirements could see their policies dropped.
• Bina Venkataraman contributed to this report from Boston.