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Warning shot for California: wildfire in Los Angeles in May

A devastating wildfire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of people on the outskirts of Los Angeles over the weekend is being cited as a warning that California could face an unusually early fire season this summer as a severe drought sets in.

No deaths were reported or homes destroyed in the bushfire that blazed through steep terrain near the Pacific Palisades in western Los Angeles. But its rapid expansion despite cool temperatures, relatively high humidity, and cloud cover was viewed as a measure of how dry the landscape has become – and how the drought has burned many parts of the state.

“We don’t usually have that kind of fire, that size of fire, in May,” Ralph M. Terrazas, chief of fire in Los Angeles, told reporters at a briefing Monday. “I think we really need to see brush fires as a year-round challenge.”

Authorities said the origin of the fire was suspect, and on Sunday they arrested a man they believed had set it on fire. The palisade fire has grown to 1,325 acres since it was first discovered on Friday and was no longer contained on Monday afternoon. A mandatory evacuation order included approximately 500 houses and affected approximately 1,000 people.

Maegnan Yu, a resident of the Palisades Highlands, an upscale mountain-view community only accessible via a winding road through steep gorges, set out on Saturday to perform a ritual that is far too well known in California.

She gathered her passport, medicines, jewelry and photo albums and packed her car ready to evacuate. From her balcony she could see three places where the hills were burning.

Fire helicopters have been flying over the Mediterranean-style houses of their community since Friday evening and fill with water in a nearby reservoir.

“Every time summer comes, you think, ‘Maybe this is the right one,” Ms. Yu said on Monday. “This one is really in our back yard.”

Most fires are human-caused – from falling power lines, sparks from mufflers pulling on the sidewalk, and gardening tools, for example – although few are started on purpose.

For the past several decades, the California fire season peaked in late summer and fall, propelled by high winds arriving in October and November. However, recent studies have shown that the season now extends earlier into spring and later into winter.

Climate change, neglected forests, and the death of 130 million trees in the state have also helped increase the potential destruction of any fire. Five of the six largest fires in California history occurred last year.

Governor Gavin Newsom last week extended a drought emergency, the second major drought in the last decade, to most of the northern half of the state and much of the agricultural Central Valley. The declaration instructs the authorities to maintain higher water levels in upstream reservoirs for release during the year.

Reservoirs in many parts of the state look like scenes from a documentary about climate change, in which formerly submerged tree stumps appear above the waterline. Satellite images show an extremely thin layer of snow in the Sierra Nevada, the state’s crucial water reservoir. The volume of water in the snowpack is only 5 percent of normal, according to the Sacramento Bureau of the National Weather Service.

The last month was the driest April in Sacramento since official records began in 1877, the office said.

Daniel Swain, climate researcher at the University of California’s Department of Environment and Sustainability, Los Angeles, said the fire hazard in California’s inland forests was “exceptionally high this year.” Vegetation moisture and flammability measurements in Northern California are near or above record levels for this time of year, he said.

Mr Swain said the stockade fire itself wasn’t of much concern, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Monday he expected the fire to be extinguished within a few days. But it was viewed as a warning shot for the state.

“It is an indication of the really extreme drought and climate-damaging risk likely to emerge later this season,” said Swain.

Northern California residents were surprised last week when red flag warnings were displayed on signs at the entrances to their cities, indicating an increased risk of fire.

There was so little rainfall in winter that in March, more than six months after igniting, last summer’s fires smoldered in the mountains of Santa Cruz.

In Pacific Palisades over the weekend, theories about the origin of the fire skyrocketed on social media. A person arrested after online posts accused him of starting the fire was later released, Chief Terrazas said. “This person turned out not to be a suspect,” he said.

The second person was arrested on Sunday afternoon.

“We feel like we have the right person,” he said.

Marie Fazio, Daniel Victor and Joel Epstein contributed to the coverage.

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