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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Yolo County Sand Fire signals blazing start to summer wildfire season

Sand Fire contained before significant destruction or danger, but some officials warn the upcoming fire season could rival the last

Right before the start of finals week at UC Davis, a wildfire nicknamed the Sand Fire erupted in Yolo County. The fire burned through 2,512 acres, prompting evacuations and power shut-offs before it was fully extinguished on June 15.

If they weren’t watching the news, UC Davis students might have missed the huge wildfire entirely. The Sand Fire started in the far northwestern corner of rural Yolo County, near the town of Guinda, roughly an hour’s drive from campus. Air quality in Davis remained more or less normal throughout the week that the wildfire occurred — unlike last year’s Camp Fire, where smoke created hazardous air quality conditions that led to public health warnings and a two-week campus shutdown. 

According to CBS13, PG&E shut-off power the morning of the Sand Fire to certain areas in Yolo County to reduce further fire risk, affecting about 1,700 customers in southwest Winters and near Lake Berryessa. 

Higher winds and hot, dry weather conditions created a fast-spreading fire on the steep slopes of the Capay Valley that initially proved difficult to contain.

Once the wind died down, Bruce Lang, a fire prevention specialist at Cal FIRE, noted that fire personnel were able to “get a handle on things.” By 8 p.m. the next day, the fire was reported at 20% containment.

Though the air around Davis remained relatively clear, social media posts from the Bay Area showed that smoke from the Sand Fire had blown as far south as San Francisco. 

The fire was fully contained a week later on June 15 at 8 a.m. There were no reports of damage to residential structures and no serious injury as a result of the Sand Fire. 

Had the Sand Fire erupted later in the season, Lang said, it’s possible the wildfire could have spread farther and caused more destruction. According to Lang, conditions are more “favorable” early in the summer — meaning that the grass and other brush that typically fuel wildfires had not dried out yet from the summer heat. 

“The fuel moisture was favorable,” Lang said. “The fuel moisture dries out as summer goes on.”

Lang said that they must wait to predict the types of fires California may face this summer. Weather conditions will play a large role in determining how large wildfires grow and the difficulty level with which they are extinguished. According to Lang, Cal FIRE will adjust its fire prevention and containment strategies dynamically, based on changes in wind, temperature and humidity this season.  

“It all hinges on the weather,” Lang said. “We base all our decisions and everything we do on [the] weather because that’s the main influencing factor with fires.”

But government officials worry that conditions are ripe for a wildfire season that could rival last year’s — which was noted as the most deadly and destructive in California’s history. In a Senate hearing on June 15, Shawna Legarza, the director of fire aviation and management for the US Forest Service, spoke on some of the factors that could increase the risk of wildfires on the West Coast. 

“We know that our predictive services are showing that it’s going to start to increase — that we could have a very significant fire year again,” Legarza said. “This year in California and the Pacific Northwest, all those grasses are going to be drying out from the heavy rains and snowpack — with that will come large fires. So we must continue to be prepared.”

In the same hearing, Jeff Rupert, the director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, detailed the destruction of last year’s Camp Fire and warned that similar challenges may be faced this upcoming fire season.  

“It’s hard to imagine a repeat of this experience, but this is the potential reality that we face again this year,” Rupert said. 

Written by: Tim Lalonde — city@theaggie.org


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