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Dry, warm weather fuels unusual January fires in Northern California

Fire crews are working on multiple fronts to contain at least five active fires within the CZU Lightning Complex Fire burn area in Santa Cruz County.
White Road at Freedom and Larkin Valley is closed due to the Nunes Fire in Santa Cruz, Calif.
White Road at Freedom and Larkin Valley is closed due to the Nunes Fire in Santa Cruz, Calif.CHP Santa Cruz / via Twitter

High winds, dry vegetation and unseasonably warm weather fueled several wildfires in Northern California on Tuesday as hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate, state fire officials said.

Fire crews were working on multiple fronts to contain at least five active fires that ignited within the CZU Complex Fire burn area in Santa Cruz County. Several nearby neighborhoods were evacuated and firefighters struggled to gain access because of hazardous tree conditions from the previous blaze, according to state fire officials.

The Complex Fire started Aug. 16 after a barrage of lightning bolt strikes. Separate fires merged into a complex of blazes that charred more than 135 square miles across San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, NBC Bay Area reported. One person died.

"We responded to many more fires overnight, but most have been contained and controlled," Santa Cruz fire officials said in a statement posted on Facebook. "We have other smaller fires within the unit, but these listed are the top priority."

Earlier Tuesday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said firefighters responded to at least 10 small vegetation fires in the last 12 hours. High winds knocked down power lines, trees and other debris in a region that has seen little to no rain this winter.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported at least a dozen fires in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties over the last 24 hours.

Officials have not determined what sparked Tuesday's fires.

"This is the reality we've been living and it's one we've been going through for quite a few years now," said Issac Sanchez, Cal Fire battalion chief. "We've noticed that the fire year gets extended further into the winter than it ever has before and it gets started earlier in the spring than it ever has before and that's the situation that we're sitting in right now."

Historically, peak fire season runs from July through October but climate change and forest mismanagement have contributed to hotter and deadlier fires that burn longer into the year.

"We don't prepare for a fire season anymore," Sanchez said. "We prepare for a fire year."

In the first few weeks of 2021, California has recorded 71 vegetation fires compared to 39 this time last year, according to Cal Fire. The five-year average for this time of year is 45 fires, Sanchez said.

California's dry winter has only exacerbated the potential for more fires. Typically vegetation absorbs moisture from rain and snow in the winter months and then blossoms in the spring. But without precipitation, that vegetation remains dry and could become "a recipe for disaster" later in the year, Sanchez added.

As of late December, the amount of water in California’s mountain snowpack was about half of average for early winter, state Department of Water Resources officials warned last year. The fall months were also unseasonably dry, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountain region, following below-average snow and precipitation in 2019.

Meanwhile above average temperatures have been recorded in Southern California, which saw multiple days in the high 80s last week. The National Weather Service also recorded record-high temperatures in San Francisco and Oakland on Monday with temperatures in the 70s across most of the region.

A fire weather warning is also in effect for parts of Southern California due to gusty winds and low humidity through Tuesday evening.

In Bakersfield, the Wolf Fire rapidly burned more than 75 acres in the Wind Wolves Preserve nature conservancy Tuesday afternoon, threatening wildlife, including foxes and hares, and the plants needed to sustain them.