A windy April, higher than usual temperatures and a dry winter are adding up to an early start to fire season.
"We've had probably half a dozen vegetation fires in the month of April of some size," said Hugo Patino, battalion chief for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority. "That's a little unusual."
State fire officials are ramping up for a busy season, staffing their stations ahead of the usual schedule. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is planning Wildfire Awareness Week next week, but noted in a release that fire activity has been increasing.
"A lot of it has to do with the lack of rain, and it's been a particularly windy month," Patino said.
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Locally, firefighters handled three blazes within a 24-hour stretch, Modesto Regional Fire Battalion Chief Cecil Ridge said. Those included a grass fire Monday evening, a vegetation fire Tuesday morning and a house fire in the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Department jurisdiction in south Modesto, also Tuesday morning.
Patino said there's plenty of fuel out there to help fires spread.
"We have in the country a lot of rolling hills with dry grass that moves pretty fast when it burns," he said. "In the city, we have the areas along the Tuolumne River that can be problematic. Some of the vegetation is pretty dense."
Each year, firefighters respond to several calls in the area of Tuolumne River Regional Park. Much of the property along the riverbank is considered riparian habitat and is protected. The steep terrain also makes fighting fires tricky.
Although the area itself is by nature wild, the cause of fires there isn't. "Most fires are probably human intervention," Patino said. That ranges from campfires that get out of control to discarded cigarette butts to car mechanical problems that spark fires along Highway 99.
"That happens two or three times over a 5-mile period, and we're off to the races."
Patino said many fires that are classified "unknown" in origin probably started with someone intentionally lighting them. "Unfortunately, that's really hard to prove," he said. "When we have a fire, we go and put the fire out, and then we find there's no real reason why we should have had a fire and we have to surmise that it was caused."
Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.
Vegetation fire reported near Merced Airport. For the story, click here.