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Firefighters hired back as fire danger grows


A marathon run of unusually high afternoon temperatures for January continues this week, helping spike high fire concerns with warnings of strong winds due overnight.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag watch for the North Bay hills starting Monday night through Tuesday morning. By mid morning Monday the level was bumped up to a red flag warning when the situation looked more serious.

It's high fire season in January.

CalFire has hired back seasonal firefighters throughout the state. Firefighting planes, typically mothballed for the winter, are ready and available in Chico for north state fires.

"I don't know of this ever happening in my career and as far as I know talking to other people, it's not something they've seen in their career," said 17-year-veteran CalFire Capt. Amy Head.

Locally, firefighters still are lugging around their high-season wildland fire gear and keeping wildland engines at the ready.

"Normally we've stored all of our wildland tools away by this time. We haven't. We're still prepared," said Cloverdale fire Battalion Chief Rick Blackmon. "It's just a real concern. We're still getting vegetation fires."

"We're in the same boat," said Geyserville fire Lt. James Tovani. "We haven't put away our gear and don't anticipate putting it away. It's bad."

The two north county agencies respond to the open, hilly and dry Mayacamas range, including The Geysers region, in their backyards.

In November a grass fire sparked in The Geysers and grew to 3,500 acres.

The fire situation hasn't improved since then.

The calendar claims it's January, when the county's rolling hillsides should be green and strong winds can mean falling trees because of soggy ground.

But the hills are brown with just a few tinges of life. And windy days mean falling tree branches can hit power lines, touching off a spot fire that can quickly spread.

The weather agency Monday issued the fire warning because of the low humidity, raising the flammability rates of grass and brush.

Winds Monday night into Tuesday could blow at 5-10 mph with gusts to 20 mph.

"Not huge gusts of winds, but enough to give us a bit of a concern," said Diana Henderson, weather service meteorologist.

The warning is in effect until 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the week's afternoon temperatures could break records.

Santa Rosa's high was 67 Monday, well short of the record of 75, but above the annual average of 59 degrees. Tuesday's high is forecast at 72, which would top the Jan. 14th record of 71 set in 2009.

The afternoon highs should dip back into the 60s by Thursday. Clouds are due Friday but there was no rain in the 10-day forecast.

Still ruling the local skies is that lengthy, stubborn high pressure ridge that for weeks has held back any chance of rain.

It broke down enough Saturday to allow a smattering of showers, which barely dampened roadways and offered no relief to the ongoing drought-like conditions permeating the region.

Last week state firefighters responded to a 333-acre timber fire in Humboldt County.

"It's crazy to be having timber fires this time of year in Humboldt," said Head. "We need a boatload of rain."

She said 125 seasonal firefighters have been added to the winter roster for stations throughout Northern California. That translated into one extra fire engine and three firefighters locally.

In Southern California fire officials are looking at drought conditions and Santa Ana winds to whip up the chance of fire.

Gusts were expected up to 60 mph in six counties and in some areas they were expected to last into Wednesday, according to AccuWeather Global Weather Center.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.