California’s relentless drought and quickly-melting mountain snow mean that the state has the right conditions for yet another summer of intense wildfires.
A dismal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a dry beginning to 2022, a trend of record-breaking heat waves and an earlier snowmelt are all setting the stage for an early wildfire season that promises to bring large, explosive infernos, experts say.
Sweltering under rising temperatures, California’s thirsty, dry brush transforms into fuel for wildfires that become more volatile, and burns hotter.
On top of that, California saw more rain than snow last winter, which means there’s now more robust vegetation that can become wildfire fuel.
So what can Californians expect from this year’s fire season? It’s going to look a lot like it did in recent years, UCI Professor Tirtha Banerjee said.
“Last year’s wildfire season was pretty significant and very long and crazy. We’re gonna see a similar trend. It’s not going to improve,” Banerjee told KTLA.
More than 2.5 million acres burned across California in 2021, according to data from Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service. The year before, a record-shattering 4.2 million acres burned. The state got its first “gigafire” that year, the August Complex fire, which burned more than 1 million acres in Northern California.
So far this year, the state has already seen 2,279 fires that together burned 10,861 acres, according to data from Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s no longer a fire season. It’s a fire year in California,“ Cal Fire Chief Jon Heggie told KTLA.
Earlier, longer fire seasons
Banerjee co-authored a study last year that found that California’s wildfire season is peaking earlier in the year and going on for longer.
The study also found that the number of hot spots, or places with severe fire risk in California, has ballooned in recent years, fueled by higher temperatures, a dry atmosphere and an increased risk of fires igniting because of human causes — like power line disruptions.
The problem has been getting worse with each passing year.
Banerjee said that climate change drying out California’s forests, the stretches of hot weather, and more people living in remote areas is creating conditions “for the perfect fire storm.”
Cal Fire is expecting the lack of rain to impact the intensity and the levels of fires as the summer heat draws nearer, Heggie said. And with dryer brush, firefighters are in for a more challenging battle.
But this is nothing new, the fire chief said.
“We had an extended drought for over 10 years and what that did throughout California, including Southern California, is leave a devastating effect. That devastating effect is dead fuel,” Heggie said.
That dead fuel can be found throughout the state and it’ll take years of rain for the vegetation to get more moisture in it, he explained.
U.S. Drought Monitor data released May 24 showed that more than 97% of California was classified under severe or extreme drought. That’s an increase from about 66% recorded in February.
The drought has created an environment that is very receptive to fire, Heggie said.
Banerjee pointed to New Mexico and Arizona, which have already seen intense wildfires this year.
“We’re gonna see the same trend because nothing has changed significantly from the last few years,” the professor said.
Fires getting “weirder”
It’s hard to predict which areas of the state will burn.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that the potential for wildfire can strike anywhere,” the Heggie said.
It’s also getting harder to predict wildfire behavior. Banerjee said wildfires are getting “weirder.”
He explained that some areas have more fuels than ever before that create explosive first that burn with more energy, shooting up tall, extremely hot flames that can end up moving in an unexpected direction, taking firefighters by surprise and making the battle more difficult.
“I’m not saying that we are in a doomsday situation. I think a lot of good work is happening on proactively managing landscapes and doing more prescribed burns when they’re needed,” Banerjee said.
Indeed, fire crews throughout the state have been working on fuel reduction projects, finding areas to reduce the flammable vegetation, either through prescribed burns, tree thinning, chipping or other preventative methods.
“The reality is, when these fires get established, they are very challenging,” Heggie said. “But we are going to do everything we can to put our best effort to create a safe environment for the citizens of California.”
“We always prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” the fire chief said.