VENTURA, Calif. — Fresh off a 24-hour shift in fire-filled valleys, Fabian Uresti, a veteran firefighter from California’s Central Valley, shrugged off the question of whether he would make it home for Christmas.
“I missed Thanksgiving this year, too,” Mr. Uresti said. “It’s part of the job.”
Major fires raging across the state this year from wine country to just shy of the Mexican border have stretched California firefighters to their limit.
“A lot of epic firefighting is occurring but we have a lot of tired folks out there on the line,” said Chief Janet Upton, a deputy director of Cal Fire.
Around 8,700 firefighters continued working on several fronts on Friday in Southern California as the largest of six major fires — 143,000 acres burned, with 10 percent containment — spread from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County. Officials said that fire, which has already claimed at least one life and destroyed 401 structures, was threatening thousands more buildings in several towns.
In San Diego County, where a grass fire that started Thursday morning quickly consumed 4,100 acres, the blaze was only 15 percent contained as of late Friday. Dozens of buildings there were destroyed, thousands of people were forced to evacuate and around 25 racehorses were killed.
Chief Ken Pimlott of Cal Fire said more than 212,000 Californians had been evacuated over the last week. He said wind conditions could create more problems through the weekend and into next week.
In the pre-dawn hours Friday, bleary-eyed men and women gathered in the parking lot of the Ventura County Fairgrounds to slip on their fluorescent yellow fire gear and start another 12-hour shift or a double shift, like Mr. Uresti.
Many were headed to the Ojai Valley, where health officials said the fire had created hazardous air quality levels that were “off the charts.”
Fire trucks assembled here tell of a statewide effort and beyond — rigs from the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Nevada idle in a chorus of clanging diesel engines. There are 3,000 firefighters assembled in Ventura County alone; when they finish their shifts digging firebreaks and hosing down vulnerable terrain, many sleep in tents at the fairgrounds.
The crews fighting the fire in Ventura include seasonal and permanent personnel from across the state; teams from the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management; and crews made up of prison inmates, who work for a base salary of $2 a day.
They use shovels, chain saws and heavy duty rakes called McLeods to cut through vegetation. One firefighter standing on a blustery hilltop Thursday night had a repetitive task worthy of Sisyphus: monitoring a patch of already scorched hillside and using a garden hose to put out small fires that reignited with each gust of wind.
The Ventura County Fire Department said on Twitter that crews were working “long hours in extremely steep, dry, rugged terrain full of drought-stressed fuels.”
California has a long history of fire catastrophes. San Francisco burned to the ground at least four times in the years immediately after the gold rush of the 1800s. The state’s Mediterranean climate with its long, arid summers has made it an attractive destination for sun-seeking migrants from wetter and colder parts of the nation. It is also one of the reasons the state is so vulnerable to fire.
In recent years the size and intensity of fires has increased. Of the state’s 20 largest wildfires over the past century, 13 have occurred since 2002, according to Cal Fire.
With fires now regularly igniting late into fall and winter, a time that was previously considered the off-season, the department says it needs more trucks and more money.
Cal Fire has spent $500 million since July and is on track to spend the most in the agency’s history.
“We staff to meet the conditions,” said Chief Upton. “But it costs money.”
Chief Upton calls California an “anomaly” compared with other states because of the vast resources that the state puts into fighting fires. There are 11,000 fire departments statewide.
Los Angeles alone spends $650 million annually on firefighting, around 7 percent of the city budget.
Already, the current fire in Ventura County has cost $17 million, officials said late Friday.
On a per-capita basis, California has the sixth largest firefighting budget among states, according to the Urban Institute. Rhode Island, Alaska, Nevada, Florida and Washington spend more per capita, according to the institute’s calculation. But experts warn that calculating total fire expenditure is difficult because so many agencies are involved.
As the climate changes and as more homes are built in areas close to nature — and thus more vulnerable to wildfires — there seems no end to the skyrocketing costs of firefighting in California.
Some experts believe that the emphasis should be to make communities more resilient to fire, rather than buying more firefighting equipment. The furious winds that helped the initial spread of both the wine country fires in October and the current round of fires in Southern California have highlighted the difficulty — and at the peak of the winds, the seeming futility — of trying to stop the fires.
“Of course you need fire protection, but just responding by getting more engines and aircraft doesn’t work,” said Stephen J. Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University. “Under the extreme conditions the system fails.”
Mr. Pyne recommended “hardening communities” in ways that allow the fires to “blow over and around them without incinerating everything.”
“Unless you do that you’re in this endless cycle,” he said.
Chris Mehl, policy director with Headwaters Economics, a Montana research group that specializes in land use policies including fire prevention, said California would be forced into building more resilient communities.
“This trend is impossible — we can’t keep this up,” he said of the increasingly frequent fires. “But how we build and where we build and the extent and the density — these are all things that are in our control,” he said.
Will the firefighters make it home for Christmas?
That depends, said David Clark, a Cal Fire spokesman. “I’ll get home when the fire is done,” he said.
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