SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Fire officials braced on Saturday for the possibility of lightning-sparked fires across a wide area of Northern California as a number of thunderstorms move into the region.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection increased staffing and was on high alert because of the increased fire danger from so-called dry thunderstorms, agency spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Fire officials believed lightning sparked two small fires totaling 650 acres, or a square mile, in the Piute Mountains of the Sequoia National Forest.
Thunderstorms can be a mixed blessing for firefighters because though the precipitation they bring can help douse wildfires, the erratic winds with the storms can also fan the flames.
"The concern always is the storms will bring downdraft winds that push the fire in different directions," Berlant said.
Most of the storms in the forecast for the weekend were expected to pack powerful winds, but drop even less rain than a series of thunderstorms that sparked nearly 75 fires last month, Berlant said.
The National Weather Service issued a "red flag" warning for Saturday and into Sunday evening for a vast section of Northern California, stretching along the Sierra Nevada mountains and west into parts of Mendocino and Lake counties
Because the thunderstorms moving into the area have a "high cloud" base, most of the precipitation produced is expected to evaporate before hitting the ground, said weather service meteorologist Tom Dang.
"The potential is there for explosive fire growth. That's why we have those red flag warnings out," Dang said.
Thunderstorms forecasted for Sunday morning were expected to make things even more difficult for the nearly 700 firefighters battling the so-called Chips Fire in the Plumas National Forest. That blaze, burning in a rugged area of the forest about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed 6,814 acres, or 10.6 square miles. Authorities said the thunderstorms could ignite new fires and whip up winds that could reach 50 mph.
Steep, rocky and inaccessible terrain has hampered firefighters' effort to corral the blaze.
No homes have been destroyed in the blaze, but residents of a handful of homes near the tiny community of Belden have been evacuated, Ames said.
About 100 miles to the northwest, crews contained a wildfire along Interstate 5 in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that consumed 980 acres, or about 1.5 square miles.
The fire burned near the interstate, about 20 miles north of Redding, where smoke remained visible from the road.
The blaze began in the freeway median on Wednesday afternoon and is believed to have been sparked by human activity.