Dried out

Experts fear potential for longer fire season after record dry February

Rick Carhart, public information officer for Cal Fire-Butte County, is concerned that a lack of rain this winter could mean a potentially longer fire season.

Rick Carhart, public information officer for Cal Fire-Butte County, is concerned that a lack of rain this winter could mean a potentially longer fire season.

Photo by Andre Byik

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Over the last year, firefighters and other fire-prevention officials cleared vegetation along a steep, rugged section of the foothills east of Oroville. The Forbestown Ridge Project is meant to stave off blazes like the Wall and Ponderosa fires of 2017. It was undertaken following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate last year to identify short- and long-term projects to prevent destructive wildfires.

Technically done with the work this past December, firefighters have continued on the 1,670-acre project this year, in part because the region has experienced an unusually dry winter, said Rick Carhart, public information officer for Cal Fire-Butte County. Firefighters have been returning to the project site daily, setting ablaze brush piles. The dry weather has allowed the agency to expedite such efforts.

It’s a double-edged sword, Carhart said: Dry conditions favorable to prevent wildfires could ultimately result in a longer fire season. It’s a concern for both firefighters and those worried about the possibility for sustained drought in the state. According to the United States Drought Monitor, a wide swath of California, from the Oregon border south to Los Angeles, is seeing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions.

Michael Anderson, state climatologist for the California Department of Water Resources, said last month set a record in the Northern Sierra Eight-Station Index, which comprises weather stations monitoring precipitation from Mount Shasta south to the Lake Tahoe area. Anderson noted it was the driest February since the 1920s, when the monitoring began.

The lack of rainfall this season fits the narrative of a changing climate, with extreme shifts in weather patterns, Anderson said. The state, he said, went from a slightly above-average December to a below-average January and then experienced a record dry February. It’s all led to a Sierra snow water equivalent measurement that, as of Friday (March 6), was 40 percent of normal, signaling the potential for a very dry year.

So what’s happened? The climatologist said over the last six weeks or so, a high-pressure system has pushed storms north of the state. Such systems are common during winter, he said, but “the unusual aspect was the length of time it stayed with us—six weeks instead of two.”

Dry conditions through the spring and summer could allow grasses and other vegetation to dry out for a longer period of time, increasing the potential for a longer fire season, Anderson said.

Carhart, Cal Fire’s spokesman, said the key word there is “potential.” One could make a case that the potential for a bad fire season is always high, regardless of whether the year is drier or wetter than average. He noted that rain did not stop the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County this past October from burning more than 77,000 acres and destroying about 370 structures. Wet years, he said, spur vegetation growth, which dries out during the summer months. The key is avoiding ignition altogether—lightning strikes, sparks, arson, accidents.

“No matter how hot and dry and receptive the vegetation is to fire, if fires don’t ignite, then there aren’t any fires,” he said. “So, just because we’re much, much drier than we were last year doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have a worse fire season.”

Nevertheless, local firefighters remain concerned about the lack of rain this year, Carhart said. Grass fires, like the recently contained Grizzly Fire near Black Butte Lake west of Orland, can spread quickly. And officials have recently seen prescribed fires, like the Baseball Fire in the Mendocino National Forest, get out of control. He added that the department may need to adjust its plans as spring and summer approach, such as revising when burn permits will be required.

Cal Fire is urging homeowners to cut defensible space around their properties, including the creation of a 5-foot ignition-free zone around structures. Basically, Carhart said, residents should eradicate any living vegetation near their homes. They also should get to work sooner rather than later, when conditions could be windy, dry and hot.

Defensible space inspectors will begin examining thousands of properties in the foothills and elsewhere starting April 1, he said. The point isn’t to punish homeowners but to inform them of areas where they can improve or tell them what they’ve done right. The inspectors will work into the fall.

One area in which fire officials see room for improvement is coordination between neighbors in the foothills communities, where privacy often is coveted. Problems have surfaced when homeowners refuse to create defensible space around their proprieties, potentially placing their neighbors at risk.

“I’m not saying that you guys need to do block parties or exchange Christmas cards, but you ought to at least know your neighbor enough to be able to coordinate defensible space,” Carhart said. “Because it’s going to do nothing but help yourself and your community, and nobody wants the community to be devastated like [has] happened.”