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Brush fires rage in Southern California amid record heat, worsening drought

One blaze erupted in Laguna Beach while new fires spread in Los Angeles County as temperatures climbed to nearly 90 degrees with gusty winds

A wildfire burns in Laguna Beach amid strong Santa Ana winds and hot weather in California on Thursday. (Sarah Shtylman/Reuters)

Talk about weather whiplash. Desiccating drought has become reinforced in California after a brief spell of heavy precipitation in the fall, dashing hopes of a long-term pattern change that would spell wetter weather for a state where 12 million acres have burned in the past decade.

Cool and rainy weather has been replaced by a record warm and dry streak, with reports of brush fires burning in Laguna Beach and Los Angeles County Thursday. That leads up to what could be, on Sunday, the hottest Super Bowl ever played, with heat advisories in effect for Orange County, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire and Deserts. The heat advisories are the first on record issued in the state during the winter.

Numerous locations in Southern California are expected to flirt with record highs Thursday near 90 degrees.

Extended outlooks over the next month portend continued hot and dry weather, exacerbating the drought and potentially setting the stage for more severe fires.

Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles could be the hottest on record

Laguna Beach and Los Angeles County blazes

Thursday dawned with a brush in Laguna Beach, named the Emerald Fire, fueled by winds and high temperatures. Residents were forced to evacuate as thick clouds of smoke covered the beachside community.

The fire had spread over 150 acres and was 10 percent contained, but the Orange County Fire Authority posted on Twitter that evacuation orders were lifted Thursday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said at a news conference there were “no structures lost, no reports of firefighter injury or civilian injury.” Authorities were first alerted at 4:10 a.m. to a fire in the wilderness area between Laguna Beach and the Emerald Bay neighborhood near the Pacific Coast Highway. Many of the properties in the gated Emerald Bay community feature multimillion-dollar homes.

While the exact number of properties affected remains unclear, “hundreds of homes” were evacuated in North Laguna, Emerald Bay and Irvine Cove, Paul Holaday, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority, told The Washington Post.

Laguna Beach Mayor Sue Kempf echoed Fennessy’s sentiments that crews were doing a good job responding to the blaze, but she noted that many residents remember a 1993 wildfire that destroyed more than 300 homes in the city.

“People have been here a long time, and they’re very sensitive. They’re very worried,” she told reporters. “I think we have a good team working on this. I’m confident we’ll get through this.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation, Fennessy said, and authorities were working with arson investigators.

The chief noted that while the fire is “not spreading rapidly at this time,” residents needed to remain patient as the unusual temperatures and conditions continue this week.

“We have to be extremely diligent over these next few days,” he said. “Do not let your guard down.”

On Thursday afternoon, the L.A. County Fire Department tweeted that it was battling two new brush fires. One of the blazes, the Sycamore Fire, was reportedly burning two homes and threatening more. More than 200 firefighters were sent to the scene both in the air and on the ground.

A case of weather whiplash

The recent dryness, contributing to the tinderbox conditions conducive to fire spread, comes in stark contrast to what was an exceptional late autumn and particularly wet December for precipitation across beleaguered California. Los Angeles recorded 8.24 inches of rainfall in December, nearly four times the average, including 3.12 inches on Dec. 30 alone. What fell in December made up nearly 70 percent of L.A.'s annual rainfall for 2021, which came in approximately average.

Then January changed on a dime. Barely a tenth of an inch of rain was recorded during the month, with a return to above-average temperatures virtually statewide.

The National Centers for Environmental Information ranked January as the ninth hottest on record in California, which takes into consideration 128 years of observation dating to 1895. California, along with Nevada, also snagged second place in the past century-plus for driest Januaries. Every climate division in the state experienced a January with bottom-10 precipitation in this period; the Central Valley had its driest January ever.

That means no improvement in the drought this month, which even after December’s rain leaves more than two-thirds of California facing a “severe” drought. The state is not at a Level 4 out of 4 signifying “exceptional drought,” though. Three months ago, nearly 38 percent of the state was at a Level 4.

Water resources plateauing

The same series of atmospheric rivers that brought heavy rain near the coast in December dumped prolific snows — tens of feet — to the Sierra Nevada. That was great news for the snowpack there and for springtime water resources. But the faucet has abruptly shut off, leading to sudden reversal.

At the Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab monitoring site, the complete dry spell has extended beyond 31 days for the first time in midwinter since record-keeping began, more than 50 years ago. Now a melting snowpack and drying soils are allowing something of a backslide after an abundance of early-winter precipitation. The record dry spell follows the report from the snow lab that it had its record-snowiest December.

Concerns grow for fire season

Such astonishing midwinter dryness is a dire hydrological signal, as January and February are typically the rainiest months for the state. Three of the five driest Januarys in California history have occurred in the past 10 years. Should the lack of precipitation continue through February, which seems probable, the likelihood of another year of severe drought will substantially increase.

That bolsters the odds of a devastating wildfire season come the warmer and drier months.

The Emerald Fire in Laguna Beach is an ominous signal of what may come later this year and, at the same time, a reflection of the risk Californians face from blazes year-round as temperatures rise and droughts worsen.

“This is exactly what the fire services in the state of California have been talking about,” Fennessy told reporters. “We no longer have a fire season — it’s a fire year.”

At the moment, Santa Ana winds stemming from dry air rushing down the mountains are gusting upward of 40 mph at the coast and 60 to 70 mph in the higher terrain. Wind advisories and high-wind warnings blanket Southern California until Thursday afternoon.

Climate change is intensifying wildfires and extreme wildfire behavior in California. Eighteen of the top 20 largest wildfires in state history have occurred in the past 20 years.