Fire danger is on the rise in California, as warm, dry and windy weather heralds a potentially long and difficult season. For several consecutive years, increasingly extreme, climate-change fueled wildfires have devastated parts of the state.
The risk of fast-spreading blazes may ease this weekend, but officials have expressed serious concerns about the months ahead as the entirety of California contends with a historically severe drought that has turned many areas into a tinderbox.
A “critical” fire risk Thursday into Friday
Because of a “critical” fire risk Thursday and Friday, the National Weather Service in Sacramento has issued a red flag warning, its alert for a dangerous combination of heat, low humidity and strong winds that could incite fast-spreading blazes. Under such conditions the National Weather Service advises extinguishing cigarettes completely, covering burn barrels and drowning fires with water — as just a small spark could ignite a major blaze.
The strongest winds are expected Thursday night and into Friday, with gusts of up to 55 mph and humidity percentages into the single digits. Wind advisories have also been issued for higher terrain in the San Francisco Bay area and in parts of the Sierra Nevada and foothills.
With temperatures rising this week, several wildfires have broken out across the state, much of which hasn’t seen significant precipitation in months.
In April, the mountains in the far north received a welcome reprieve from this winter’s record-setting dry spell, but not all areas were so lucky, including the Sacramento Valley and most of Central and Southern California.
Since Jan. 1, downtown Sacramento has seen about 2 inches of rain — more than 10 inches below normal, according to Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the Weather Service office there. Further north, Redding, Calif., has received a little over 4 inches of rain in 2022 — a deficit of more than 15 inches.
Wildfire outlooks have highlighted the risk to Northern California this spring and summer — a forecast that appears to be coming to fruition.
“Confidence is high for an early start to the large fire season,” stated an outlook issued May 1 by predictive services meteorologists with the Northern California Geographic Coordination Center. Fire potential was predicted to rise in May for the Sacramento Valley westward into the Bay Area and expand to much of the region in June and July.
Expanding window for destructive fires
Isaac Sanchez, battalion chief of communications for Cal Fire, said that much of the state is already primed to burn.
“The long-term effects of the drought and climate change are having very real impacts in terms of our live fuel moistures,” he said. “The fuel bed is ready to burn now in ways that it typically isn’t until late in the summer.”
Sanchez said that, in his 23 years of experience with California wildfires, the risk for major wildfires didn’t usually arrive until late July or August.
“That window for large, destructive fires continues to widen every single year,” he said.
Early snowmelt has also allowed wildfires to move to higher elevations that should be too moist to burn even in summer — a documented trend with climate change that looks to repeat itself this year, given the very low mountain snowpack.
Some of the fires that have already occurred this year, while not especially large, are an indication of the potentially explosive conditions on the ground.
“The Coastal Fire that burned in Orange County is a graphic example of how receptive our fuel beds are right now,” Sanchez said.
The fast-moving 200-acre blaze swept up a hillside in Laguna Niguel to destroy 20 homes and damage 11 more on May 11. It was considered unusual because it grew under humid, westerly wind flow from the Pacific Ocean — far from the typical “fire weather” in Southern California, which features dry Santa Ana winds blowing from land to sea. The Emerald Fire, which forced evacuations in coastal Orange County in February, was another unusual fire because it occurred in midwinter. It sparked during Santa Ana winds and a heat wave, amid this winter’s prolonged and record-breaking dry spell.
Years of drought stress
Vegetation in the region has been under years of drought and heat stress; at least seven of the last 10 years have been dry. During the 2012-16 drought, Orange County effectively missed two full seasons of rainfall, according to Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. And two wet years — 2017 and 2019 — did not deliver enough precipitation to recover from those deficits. The dry start to 2022 has also been punctuated by record heat.
Robert Krohn, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Riverside, Calif., said that much of the region’s native shrub vegetation is dead or dying, leaving behind an abundance of flammable material. Given these conditions, he expects that Southern California wildfire outlooks to also hoist “above normal” risk levels later this year, particularly for Santa Ana wind season in autumn.
Rebecca Miller, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s West on Fire project, said that severe wildfires of the past several years are affecting people across the entire state and are no longer just a concern for far-flung rural and forested communities.
“We’re seeing these fires in the north and the south; in rural, suburban and urban areas,” she said. “Even if you are not affected by the fire itself, you are going to be affected by the smoke it produces.”
The good news is that there are clear indications that communities are responding to the threat.
Since the devastating fires of 2017 and 2018, there has been a tremendous uptick in participation in the Firewise program for community wildfire preparedness and in the number of wildfire-related bills that have been introduced in the state legislature, Miller said. That has only continued with subsequent challenging, and even record-breaking fire seasons in 2020 and 2021.
With another difficult summer and fall ahead, she has practical advice for those who might need to evacuate because of a wildfire.
“You should have a go-bag prepared if you are in a high fire hazard area, especially if there is severe fire weather on the horizon,” she said. She also recommends taking photos of your home and belongings for insurance purposes.
“It’s much better to take the time to prepare ahead of the season than when a wildfire is on the way,” she said.