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Parched California sees more wildfires but favorable weather, drought funding aids fight

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FRESNO, California — California has seen more wildfires so far this year, but the acreage burned is smaller thanks to favorable weather and more firefighters who can quickly be dispatched to corral flames, fire officials say.

Since Jan. 1, about 5,200 fires have burned on state and federal lands, according to the U.S. Forest Service. That's 10 percent more than last year, but the 74,000 acres is 6 percent smaller.

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, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said Monday.

"We've had more firefighters early," he said. "That's allowed us to be more aggressive."

Cal Fire oversees state land and private property between forests and cities, while the Forest Service is responsible for 21 million acres in 18 national forests.

So far this year, state firefighters have responded to nearly 3,900 blazes — a 41 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Cal Fire. The fires have burned 28 percent less area than last year.

Cal Fire's map of fire activities showed nine blazes across the state Monday.

One broke out Monday afternoon north of Sacramento, forced residents from their homes and destroyed power lines. It was believed set, and an arrest was made, said Michelle Eidam of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, who declined to provide details.

The fire burned 430 acres, but firefighters were making good progress.

Meantime, another wildfire 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 and chewed 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, said fire spokesman Raj Singh, a spokesman for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team.

"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 rugged Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento. One had serious, non-life threatening injuries and remained hospitalized.

Scattered wet weather has been the biggest factor helping firefighters contain fires more quickly during the fourth year of the drought, Berlant said. 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 campaigns, 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 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 on Forest Service lands in California.

PHOTO: A helicopter flies away from a burning ridge after dropping water on the Willow Fire near Bass Lake, Calif., Monday, July 27, 2015. (Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee via AP)
A helicopter flies away from a burning ridge after dropping water on the Willow Fire near Bass Lake, Calif., Monday, July 27, 2015. (Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee via AP)

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Jonathan Padilla, 14, left, looks as his grandfather Andrew Padilla, right, points towards the Willow Fire from a vantage point along Road 274 near Bass Lake, Calif. Monday, July 27, 2015. (Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee via AP)
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