The driest season in memory has turned the countryside into a tinderbox and it could be an historic fire season, reports CBS Correspondent Sandra Hughes from Chico, Calif. Record low rainfall, bone-dry brush and unseasonably high winds all coming together for a perfect firestorm.
Fire crews in California have a lot of experience fighting wildfires. But they'd never seen the countryside explode into flames the way it has over the past few days. More than 800 wildfires are burning in northern California -- an area that hasn't had a good, soaking rain in months.
"It was explosive conditions up there, real hot, the fire kept breaking on us and slopping over so we had to really work hard," said Battalion Chief Merlin Turner of the Richmond Fire Department in Northern California.
The weekend storm was unusual not only because it generated so many lightning strikes over a large geographical area, but also because it struck so early in the season and moved in from the Pacific Ocean. Such storms usually don't arrive until late July or August and typically form southeast of California.
"You're looking at a pattern that's climatologically rare. We typically don't see this happen at this time of summer," said John Juskie, a science officer with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. "To see 8,000, that's way up there on the scale."
Thousands of firefighters battled the blazes Tuesday from the ground and air. No homes had been destroyed, but voluntary evacuations were in place for residents of at least 25 homes, officials said.
Firefighters who contained a fire in Napa are heading off - without rest - to the nearby Walker fire, Hughes reports. And while reinforcements are coming from Nevada, Oregon and Montana, firefighters are starting to show signs of fatigue.
"People are tired right now, people are starting to show the sign of wear that we wouldn't see until late in the summer," said Battalion Chief David Shew.
One of the biggest problems firefighters are facing is that there are 300 vacant positions and a shortage of fire engines at the U.S. Forest Service.
"The department has assured me that by fire season, all these positions would be filled we are into fire season, they are not filled, and that's a real problem," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
So cash-strapped California is looking anywhere it can to pump up its own firefighting budget.
"We need to raise more revenues in order to buy the equipment and get the resources to fight all of those fires," said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "And so I think our idea is to raise the homeowners insurance."
Despite the many lightning strikes that hit the ground on Saturday alone, the weekend thunderstorm brought little precipitation because the rain evaporated in hot, dry layers of the atmosphere before it hit the ground, Juskie said.
The lightning storm struck California when the state was experiencing one of its driest years on record. Earlier this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought and directed agencies to speed up water deliveries to drought-stricken areas. Many communities are have adopted strict conservation measures.
From San Francisco to Los Angeles, cities have only seen a tiny fraction of the rainfall they normally receive in a typical year. In the Central Valley, the cities of Sacramento, Modesto, Stockton and Red Bluff have recorded their driest March-to-May periods since at least the 19th century, according to the weather service.
"A combination of lightning and very dry fuels will spark fires," said Mark Strobin, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey. "It doesn't take much nowadays especially with how dry it is."
Even before the lightning struck, California had already seen an unusually large number of wildfires, although the fire season typically does not start until July and does not peak until late summer or early fall.
"This doesn't bode well for the fire season," said Ken Clark, a meteorologist in Southern California with AccuWeather.com. "We're not even into the meat of the fire season at this point, and the brush is extremely dry. It's not going to get any better, it's going to get worse."
The weekend's lighting storm combined with extremely dry conditions to spark about 840 separate blazes from the Big Sur area of Monterey County to Del Norte County on the Oregon border.
By contrast, 574 lightning-sparked fires blackened about 55,000 acres in Northern California in all of 2007.
One of the state's worst wildfire years occurred in 2001, when more than 2,000 lightning-caused blazes burned 185,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Areas hit the hardest by the weekend thunderstorm include Mendocino County, where 131 fires have burned more than 13,000 acres; Lake County, where six fires have scorched more than 12,000 acres; and the Shasta-Trinity Forest, where more than 150 fires have burned about 8,000 acres.
On Tuesday, fire crews from Nevada and Oregon arrived after Schwarzenegger requested extra help. Smoke from the fires has darkened skies in the San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley, causing public health officials to issue air-quality warnings.
The weather service has said more dry thunderstorms could strike Northern California later this week.
"That's something we have to keep an eye on," said Mark Strobin, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey. The weather pattern "could happen again across Central and Northern California."