California firefighters are battling a new wildfire. The Sterling fire broke out Thursday in the San Bernardino Mountains, where firefighters have been battling flames for over a week. It has already burned at least 100 acres. It's one of the more than 2,500 fires that have broken out in California so far this year, and gusty winds and drought conditions are fueling the flames.
New data show the drought is designated as "extreme" or "exceptional" in more than 70 percent of California. That gives firefighters a new obstacle this year: searching for water.
Flying over the parched hills of Southern California, it's clear how four years of drought has taken its toll, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.
"Normally at this time of year, we'd be seeing green and wildflowers as far as we can see. But because of the drought, we're seeing brown, dry fuel that has no moisture in it at all," Orange County fire Capt. Dave Lopez said.
Lopez pointed to hills where a small fire could quickly grow into an inferno. The landscape is so dry, fires burn hotter and spread faster, making early attack from the air essential. But just as the drought has made the landscape flammable, it's also dried up many of the water sources firefighters depend on to do their job.
"In fact, a lot of our sites we've used for our helicopters to dip [into] are no longer there. So our pilots and captains have to go out and recon these areas," Lopez said. "You have to remember what we call turnaround time, meaning, how long does it take to get to that water source and back; every minute that increases, is every minute that fire gets larger."
For those crucial water drops, Blackstone went up on a training mission with the Orange County Fire Authority. One reservoir, Lake Irvine, remains a reliable source to dip for water, but the lake is still about 20 feet below capacity and likely to shrink further. Many other reservoirs in the county are nearly empty or already dry.
"It just means that we have to have resort to a ground fill, or fly farther away to find the water that we need," Lopez said.
In a dusty field, the Orange County crew practiced a ground fill, loading the helicopter from a fire truck, more slowlyl, but perhaps this year it's the only way to drop water on some fires.
"I think this is going to be the worst fire season we've seen yet. And next year will probably be worse than that unless this drought breaks," Lopez said.
In fast-moving fires, the chopper crews have another job as well: saving fire fighters and civilians who are in danger.
California's firefighters practice those rescues regularly because there's little room for error with California's statewide fire agency, Cal Fire, reporting a 50 percent increase in the number of fires already this year compared to 2014.