Year's most destructive California wildfire declared extinguished after two weeks

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By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – California’s biggest, most ruinous wildfire this year, a wind-driven blaze that scorched 120 square miles (310 square kilometers) of Sonoma County wine country and consumed scores of homes, was declared fully contained and extinguished on Thursday, two weeks after erupting.

The Kincade fire alone accounts for nearly a third of the 250,000-plus acres (101,000 hectares) laid to waste by blazes since January, many during a series of violent windstorms of historic proportion that swept California last month.

The tally of more than 400 structures damaged or destroyed in the Kincade fire also represents over half the property losses from all California wildfires this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Still, California’s current fire season to date pales by comparison to an epic spate of conflagrations in 2017 and 2018 that ranks as the deadliest and most destructive in state history.

Nearly 150 lives were lost in wildfires during those two years, including 85 who perished in the Camp fire, which virtually incinerated the Northern California town of Paradise a year ago on Friday and stands as the state’s most lethal blaze on record. Cal Fire lists just three wildfire fatalities so far this year.

Although weeks remain of a fire season that now effectively runs through December, the 2019 tally of a quarter-million acres burned falls far short of the 1.2 million acres and 1.6 million acres that went up in flames in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

A number of factors have been cited for the reduced wildfire toll in 2019, including redoubled readiness and prevention efforts and favorable weather through the first half of the year.

“We had a great winter, in terms of rainfall, with a really good snow pack, and no winds to speak of for most of the year,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.

Those conditions gave way to the onset of heavy blasts of dry, gale-force winds blowing in from desert areas in October, the traditional peak of fire season.

When fires did ignite, many communities in harm’s way likely benefited from having more “defensible space” thanks to greater emphasis on fuel-reduction projects aimed at removing excess vegetation that might otherwise burn.

Governor Gavin Newsom also allocated extra money to pre-stage firefighting strike teams and equipment in strategic spots, allowing local authorities to respond to fires more swiftly, McLean said.

The jury was still out on the success of another major change in preparedness – increased use of wide-scale, precautionary power shut-offs by utilities during high winds to reduce the risk of electric lines sparking fires.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. made particular use of this strategy in October, cutting off electricity to millions of residents in a move the governor and state regulators criticized as badly managed.

PG&E has acknowledged that the Kincade fire erupted near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower where one of its lines malfunctioned about the time the blaze started, though the fire’s cause remains under investigation.

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