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California seeing more wildfires but sustaining less damage

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — More wildfires have torn across California so far this year compared to the same period of 2014 but firefighters said Monday that efforts to confine and extinguish the latest blazes have been more successful than in the past.

Spurts of unseasonably rainy weather combined with the availability of hundreds of additional firefighters paid for with emergency drought funding have made a big difference in fighting the fires, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

“We’ve had more firefighters early,” he said. “That’s allowed us to be more aggressive.”

Since Jan. 1, state firefighters have responded to nearly 3,900 blazes– a 41 percent increase from the same period last year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

However, the fires this year have burned 28 percent less area than the blazes last year, said the agency that oversees state land and private property between forests and cities.

The U.S. Forest Service said the total number of wildfires on federal and state land — 5,200 — has jumped 10 percent since the year started but 6 percent less land has burned compared to last year. The Forest Service oversees 21 million acres in 18 national forests.

Several wildfires were burning Monday across the state, Berlant said.

One was threatening about 450 structures in the tiny wooded communities of Bass Lake and Cascadel Woods north of Fresno. Residents were notified to prepare to evacuate.

Elsewhere, campgrounds were evacuated and residents were put on alert as a wildfire threatened hundreds of structures in Sierra National Forest.

The fire that broke out Saturday was just 5 percent contained after chewing through more than 2 square miles of dry timber. The cause was under investigation.

Firefighters were trying to take advantage of mild weather before an expected spike in temperatures to triple digits later in the week, fire spokesman Raj Singh said.

“We’re trying to hit it hard today and tonight,” Singh said.

Four firefighters were hurt Sunday while battling a blaze that threatened 1,800 buildings in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento.

One had serious, non-life threatening injuries and remained hospitalized. The fire was 20 percent contained.

Berlant said scattered wet weather has been the biggest factor helping firefighters contain fires more quickly during the fourth year of the drought. However, those storms often have been followed by hot, dry spells such as the one expected later this week.

The state has increased its radio and television campaign, reminding campers of the drought and high danger of fire in the wilderness. People cause 95 percent of fires, so getting the message out is important, Berlant said.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “We really struggle making sure we don’t sound like a broken record.”

John Heil, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said he expects California to be on pace for an average fire year.

He said camping on Forest Service land isn’t expected to drop much because of fires. On average, there are 35 million visits to campgrounds each year to Forest Service sites in California.

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