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Severe fire season feared for North Coast

Several small wildfires around the North Coast on Thursday provided evidence of what Cal Fire officials say is shaping up to be a severe fire season even with June and the traditional summer months still on the horizon.

That's partly why fire officials are cautioning Californians about elevated fire danger this weekend, as revelers head to the backyard for barbecues and campers set out for the woods to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday.

“We are experiencing conditions we typically have in mid-summer,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Friday. “We are really urging everyone to be extra cautious this weekend, as we know people plan to head outdoors.”

Cal Fire crews already have responded to nearly 1,600 wildfires this year, up from 1,050 by the same time last year and nearly double the 850 in an average year.

Most years by late May, wildfires have scorched about 3,200 acres in areas that Cal Fire is responsible for, Berlant said.

This year it's been nearly 44,000 acres, he said.

“We have seen a significant increase in our wildfire activity this year,” Berlant said.

Tinder-like conditions created by one of the driest winters on record were made even worse this week by high winds that likely extracted any moisture left in the brush and grasses around the region, increasing the ease with which wildfires can start.

That may help explain a flurry of small fires that kept firefighters on the run Thursday, though all the incidents remain under investigation and the largest was only 1 acres.

That fire occurred Thursday night around 7:17 p.m. near Highway 29 and Ragatz Lane in Yountville, Cal Fire representatives said.

In Mendocino County, there were three fires scattered around the county over about 6 hours Thursday, including one that scorched about an acre of land off Old Wagon Road in Potter Valley, a quarter-acre fire along Highway 101 just north of Willits, and a smaller fire in Fort Bragg on Shane Drive, Cal Fire said.

Vehicle crashes caused two more brush fires in Sonoma County — one on Napa Road outside Sonoma on Thursday afternoon, and another in east Petaluma early Friday morning.

Cal Fire's tips for preventing wildfires include following all campfire restrictions and permitting requirements; always having a responsible person in attendance when a fire or barbecue is lit; clearing debris and leaves within 10 feet of campfires, and extinguishing them fully when done.

Cal Fire “hopes everyone takes steps to prevent fires,” Berlant said, “but obviously we are prepared to respond should there be fires.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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