Warning signs are flashing red: California faces another scary year for extreme wildfires.
More than 93 percent of the state is in severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And a March 1 reading of the state's snowpack found it way below normal — just 63 percent of the average for that date.
That's not all. California hillsides are turning brown with dead and dying grass — potential kindling for the next inferno.
Taken together, it's a recipe for disaster.
"That's a pretty good environment to make it easy for fires to start and make it easy for fires to spread," said Benjamin Hatchett, assistant research professor of atmospheric sciences at DRI, the University of Nevada's research arm. "Everyone is pretty concerned with where we're headed based on a third year of dry conditions" and with vegetation dying.
California officials are hoping for the best but girding for the worst as the state enters the time of the year when wildfires start to grow larger. Adding to their anxiety: Unseasonably warm weather to start the year has baked vegetation earlier than usual.
"This year is once again shaping up to be very dry across much of the Western U.S. unless a sequence of very wet storms shows up in the next month or so," A. Park Williams, geography professor at UCLA, wrote in an email. That "would be a bit of a miracle," he said, "given that it’s already pretty late in the wet season."
Rain storms hit parts of California on Monday. The precipitation will help, but it won’t be enough to counteract the state's dryness, experts said. The Shasta Reservoir, the biggest in the state, was at 38 percent yesterday versus the historical average of 48 percent for the date.
'Continuous year of preparation'
Catastrophic wildfires have ravaged the Golden State in recent years, their ferocity amplified by climate change.
Blazes last year burned more than 3 million acres — a total nearly the land mass of Connecticut. It was the second highest total for California acres burned by wildfires annually, with the all-time record set in 2020. Fires charred 4.3 million acres that year (Climatewire, Dec. 6, 2021).
The state said it’s taking numerous steps to combat the looming threat.
Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D) office yesterday unveiled a plan to increase the use of prescribed burns in the state. It set a target of expanding those intentional fires to 400,000 acres annually by 2025. State, federal, tribal and local entities would work toward the goal.
Due in large part to climate change, California "is at an unprecedented crossroads" and must make forests and other wildlands "more resilient to fire threats, or we risk losing the natural systems" crucial to the state, the plan warned.
Newsom has proposed a multiyear plan of $2.7 billion to increase thinning of forests and other projects to decrease catastrophic wildfire risk, a governor's spokesperson said.
There's also a planned $1.1 billion over the next five years for projects that include upgrading fire stations to accommodate a new helicopter and aircraft fleet for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, or CalFire.
CalFire has been bringing back seasonal crews earlier, in March and April instead of summer. The agency wants to have peak staff in place by early June, said Isaac Sanchez, a Cal Fire battalion chief.
But fire prevention work is ongoing, he said, with crews cutting back vegetation. They also help communities create "defensible space" barriers, clearing flammable foliage and other items around homes and buildings.
"It doesn't necessarily start or stop," Sanchez said. "It is just a continuous year of preparation for what we're not only going through, but what more we can expect to go through in the near term."
California also relies on help from the federal government, which owns nearly 58 percent of California’s 33 million acres of forest lands, Newsom's office said.
The U.S. Forest Service said it's treated about 200,000 acres with prescribed burns, thinning and other efforts in fiscal 2021–2022. That was short of its goal of 240,000 acres, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it said.
Hiring woes have hit the Forest Service hard, POLITICO reported earlier this month. It revealed that Forest Service officials warned California employees that 50 percent fewer applications were submitted for key firefighting positions this year compared to last.
The agency said it's trying to reverse the trend.
“We are aggressively working to hire and create incentives for applicants for the 2022 fire year and the efforts are ongoing,” the agency said in a statement. “The Forest Service continues its hiring efforts for both permanent and temporary firefighters.”
Dry grasses spread fire easily
Signs are mounting that it will be a tough summer and fall for firefighters.
Rain last October and December in California triggered grass growth. But little precipitation came in January through March, said Hatchett at DRI.
“And now all of that [grass] is starting to dry out," Hatchett said. Meanwhile, trees have weathered two years of drought and 10 years of warm and generally dry conditions. Many of those trees are already pulling water from deeper roots, he said. "So they're going to be drying out more as we go later into the season."
That elevates wildfire risk, particularly for late summer, he said. Dried out grasses and smaller shrubs ignite easily and can carry fire across the landscape.
In Southern California, chaparral is drying out about five weeks ahead of schedule, said Kristen Allison, a fire planning management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. She is part of a group that briefs Cal Fire and others on what conditions look like in terms of fire risk.
“We're starting to see a transition on the lower elevations” with grass turning from green to brown, she said. “Usually that transition happens later in the spring.”
In addition, because there have been such large fires, there's a problem with soils that are "hydrophobic," she said. That means it repels water, which "rolls off the top and it doesn't actually percolate through the soil system."
If there are heavy rains, it can trigger mudslides, Allison said.
A factor called the energy release component is showing worrisome data, said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. The component indicates the available energy per square foot area and offers a fuel moisture index.
"Right now, we're sort of at like July levels, if you take the average" in the San Francisco Bay area, Wara said. "We are absolutely in record territory for this time of year for how dry the fuels are. And that situation is only going to evolve in one direction."
Other factors influence fire risk. Those include the strength of summer heat waves, which way the wind blows, and whether it's hot and dry, said Wara, who added that "all you can say at this point is the odds are setting up in a way that is very dangerous."
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.