California is enjoying fewer extreme wildfires than it has in years, which experts attribute to a combination of summer rain, calm weather and increased forest management.

As of Thursday, fires had blackened less than 363,000 acres throughout the Golden State. That’s far less than last year, when 2.5 million acres burned, and 2020, when fires torched a record 4 million acres.

“We are throwing absolutely everything we have at the fire conditions to try to keep people safe,” said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson at the California Office of Emergency Services. “But we’ve also got lucky and had some support from Mother Nature.”

But Ferguson and other experts warned that wildfires are now a year-round threat, largely thanks to climate change, which dries out vegetation and soil with record-breaking high temperatures and persistent drought.

Some of the state’s most destructive fires have happened at this time of year. The Camp Fire in Butte County hit in November 2018, destroying a town and killing 85 people. A year earlier, the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties hit in December and burned into January.

If California doesn’t see much rain or snow over the next few months, it will continue to be at risk for wildfires even as the temperature gets colder, said Max Moritz, wildfire specialist with University of California Cooperative Extension.

“The plants themselves are still under pretty extreme water stress, and they’re still potentially quite flammable, even if it’s cold,” Moritz said. “If we see again, you know, no rain until really late in the season, we could have winter fires and have some real problems.”

But this year, he said, fires weren’t ignited at the same time as California experienced extreme winds. That combination in the past has triggered some of the state’s biggest and deadliest fires.

This year’s heat waves also didn’t come with many lightning-triggered fires. In 2020, some 12,000 mostly dry lightning strikes over one August weekend ignited more than 600 fires in Northern California. Those resulted in the August Complex fire—a merging of blazes—that burned more than a million acres.

This year, lightning sparked slightly more than 220 fires on U.S. Forest Service land in California, said agency spokesperson Adrienne Freeman. But several of those came during strong rainstorms that wet vegetation, she said, decreasing the likelihood of fires igniting and spreading.

Rain also prevented the Mosquito Fire—which began in early September in Placer and El Dorado countries—from getting very large, said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University.

Models predicted the fire could burn all the way to North Lake Tahoe until a storm tied to a typhoon off the Gulf of Alaska brought rain to Northern California. About an inch and a half of rain helped douse the fire as well as vegetation that had become dangerously dry, Wara said.

“It could have been a pretty terrible fire season except that we had rain in mid-September,” he said. “That really made a huge difference.”

The storm decreased wildfire risk for several weeks. And then this month, more rain arrived.

A favorable window

A lack of wind has also allowed state and federal officials to spend more time clearing dry brush and setting controlled burns.

“This time last year, we were still fighting fires,” said Tony Andersen, deputy director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, known as Cal Fire. “To get ahead of that, being able to put some proactive fire mitigation, fire prevention efforts on the ground during this favorable window in time has also been really helpful.”

The state has cut back about 315,000 acres of dry brush over the past three years, while the Forest Service has intentionally burned roughly 10,000 acres in the last 45 days.

Cal Fire inspectors have also conducted about 290,000 assessments with property owners to help them better prepare their home to resist a wildfire, Andersen said.

And while the state has seen 7,200 fires this year—compared to nearly 8,000 last year—the blazes have mostly stayed small.

Large fires often pull resources from throughout the state, meaning fewer firefighters in local areas to prevent small fires from growing. But a relatively quiet fire season enabled firefighters to jump on small blazes quickly, said Freeman of the Forest Service. This year’s budget also provided firefighters with more equipment.

“It’s a cycle,” Freemen added. “Once you get a couple big fires going, and you get more and more people dragged to those fires, you have fewer resources to stop the things at home.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.