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As California Drought Worsens, Peak Wildfire Season Could Come Months Earlier Than Usual

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USFS Inciweb
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File photo - The Sequoia Complex Fire, burning Sunday, Sept 13, 2020 near Clicks Meadow.

Most of California is experiencing extreme drought right now. That means the possibility of bigger, more destructive wildfires earlier in the summer. CapRadio’s Scott Rodd has this report from Butte County.      

Lunchtime brings a crew of laborers to this taco stand in Oroville. They’re taking a break from clearing trees and brush around nearby homes.

One of them tells Sissy Savoye about free and reduced-cost programs to remove hazardous vegetation in fire-prone areas. She leaves with a box of tacos and the company’s contact info.

Savoye is living in a tent on her best friend’s property...and plans to help him rebuild after his home burned last year.

“He barely got out with not even a shirt on his back and his dog. Like, had to drive through a wall of fire to get out,” says Savoye.

The region has seen bigger and bigger fires in recent years.

The Wall Fire, 6,000 acres.

The Camp Fire, 150,000 acres.

And the North Complex Fire last year, over 300,000 acres.

But Savoye, like many of her neighbors, is committed to this place.

“I was sitting up outside my tent at night, a lot of people think it’s really ugly. Scarred, damaged. Maybe I relate to that--scars and damage. And I was fortunate enough to have a lot of people love me back to health,” says Savoye.

She says she is a little nervous about this year. And for good reason.

The last 18 months were among the driest and hottest on record in California. Moisture levels in fire fuels like grass and brush are below average. And the meager snow-pack has largely soaked into the ground, instead of flowing into lakes and rivers.

Look no further than Lake Oroville to see the drought’s impact.

Eric Eastman visits here often. He owns a houseboat and is giving me a tour of the lake in his pontoon.

The marina had to remove about 70 houseboats this year...because they could have run aground as the water continues to drop.

Eastman’s boat was spared, but he says it has an impact on the whole community.

“I’d be devastated that we wouldn’t be able to have our home on the water. We would still come here, and many of the owners potluck every night and get together, so we have friend’s boats that we stay on, but it’s not like staying on your boat,” says Eastman.

The shoreline’s steep, dry embankments loom over us.

Lake Oroville’s water is less than half of what it usually is for this time of year. And it will only continue to drop.

We ride past a hillside torched by last year’s North Complex Fire...which sent a blizzard of embers onto the lake.

“You couldn’t even see one boat to the next, so thick of smoke. And they finally let people come off and blow the ash and everything off your boats. Because there were huge leaves and pine needles everywhere. I just can’t believe boats didn’t catch on fire,” says Eastman.

Back on dry land, I meet up with CalFire Captain Robert Foxworthy.

We hike along a wooded trail...where much of the grass is already dried out and yellow...prime for catching fire.

So what is Cal Fire doing to prepare?

“We are hiring over 1,200 additional firefighters that are gonna go mainly to hand crews. Until they are actually out there fighting fire and fire suppression, they’re going to be doing fuel suppression projects,” says Foxworthy.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced over half-a-billion dollars in early-budget spending to expand vegetation management projects. And he’s proposing over $5 billion to address the drought.

Foxworthy offers this plea to the public: Now is the time to pack your go-bags with essential belongings and documents, and to make sure the space around your home is clear of dangerous fire fuels.