Watch CBSN Live

More Lightning Expected To Scorch Calif.

Thousands of firefighters from at least three states battled more than 1,000 wildfires set by an electrical storm that unleashed nearly 8,000 lightning strikes across Northern California - a rare example of "dry lightning" that brought little or no rain but plenty of sparks to the state's parched forests and grasslands.

Janet Upton, a CalFire information officer, told CBS News Early Show anchor Russ Mitchell that the number of fires in the northern part of the state is now up to 1,022.

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."

Mitchell reports that another lightning storm is forecasted for the area on Thursday.

"This is nothing short of a natural disaster, with these storms and these fires," said Upton. "The hope is that the lighting storm we're expecting in the next couple of days comes with a little bit more rain than we saw last weekend."

CBS Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports from Chico, Calif. that containment of the fires will not happen for at least another week.

On Tuesday, fire crews from Nevada and Oregon arrived after Schwarzenegger requested extra help.

Despite the reinforcements, firefighters are starting to show signs of fatigue. Firefighters who contained a fire in Napa are heading off - without rest - to the nearby Walker fire, Hughes reports.

"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."

Hughes reports that military aid is now being sent to the weary firefighters in the form of aircraft and personnel.

The lightning-caused fires have scorched tens of thousands of acres and forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes, though few buildings have been destroyed, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"It's just extremely, extremely dry," Berlant said. "That means any little spark has the potential to cause a large fire. The public needs to be extra cautious because we don't need any additional wildfires."

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 have adopted strict conservation measures.

From San Francisco to Los Angeles, cities have only seen a tiny fraction of the rainfall they normally receive at this point 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 destructive wildfires that had burned nearly 90,000 acres, compared with 42,000 acres during the same period last year, according to CalFire officials. The fire season typically 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 "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 and threatened about 500 homes; Butte County, where 25 fires have burned more than 3,900 acres and threatened 400 homes; and the Shasta-Trinity Forest, where more than 150 fires have burned about 8,000 acres and threatened 200 homes.

Firefighters continue to battle the state's largest blaze, a 58,000-acre fire that began more than two weeks ago in a remote region of the Los Padres National Forest in southern Monterey County. The so-called Indians fire was about two-thirds contained Tuesday. A separate 8,500-blaze ignited by Saturday's lightning in the forest's Big Sur area was only 3 percent contained.

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," Strobin said. The weather pattern "could happen again across Central and Northern California."