California has been experiencing fewer wildfires than in years. Experts attribute this to a combination summer rain, calmer weather, and better forest management.
As of Thursday, fires had blackened less than 363,000 acres throughout the Golden State. This is a far smaller number than the 2.5 million acres that burned last year and 2020,, which saw fires scorch a record 4,000,000 acres.
” We are throwing everything we have at the fire conditions in an effort to keep people safe,” Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Office of Emergency Services said. “But we also had some luck and received some support from Mother Nature
But Ferguson, along with other experts, warned that wildfires pose a threat all year round, largely due to climate change which has drained soil and vegetation with record-breakingly high temperatures and persistent drought.
This time of year has seen some of the most devastating fires in the state. The Camp Fire in Butte County hit in November 2018, destroying a town and killing 85 people. The Thomas Fire in Ventura County and Santa Barbara counties had occurred in December of last year and burned into January.
If California doesn’t get much rain or snow in the next few months it will still be at risk of wildfires, according to Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist.
” The plants themselves are still experiencing extreme water stress and they’re still potentially very flammable, even though it’s cold,” Moritz stated. “If we see rain again, you know? Until really late in the season,” Moritz said.
But, this year, he said that fires were not lit at the same moment as California experienced extreme winds. This combination has been responsible for some of the most deadly and destructive fires in the state.
This year’s heat waves didn’t bring with them 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. These ignited the August Complex fire, a fusion 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. She said that many of these fires were started by strong rainstorms, which drained vegetation, which decreased the chance of them spreading.
Rain also stopped the Mosquito fire, which started in September in El Dorado and Placer countries, from getting very large, according to Michael Wara, director at Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program.
Models had predicted that the fire would reach North Lake Tahoe, but a storm triggered by a typhoon off of the Gulf of Alaska brought rain down to Northern California. Wara stated that the rain of about an inch and a quarter inches helped to put out the fire, as well as any vegetation that had become too dry.
” It could have been a terrible fire season but for the rain in September,” he said. “That really made an enormous difference .”
The storm reduced wildfire risk for several week. Then, this month, more rain came.
A favorable window
The lack of wind has allowed state and federal officials more time to clear dry brush and set controlled burns.
” “This time last year we were still fighting fires,” said Tony Andersen (deputy director at Cal Fire’s California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention). “To avoid that, being able put some proactive fire mitigation, and fire prevention efforts on ground during this favorable window 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 draw resources from across the state, which means that there are fewer firefighters available to fight small fires. Freeman, Forest Service, stated that firefighters were able to quickly jump on small fires because of the relatively quiet season. The budget for this year also allowed firefighters to purchase more equipment.
“It is a cycle,” Freemen said. “Once you start a few big fires and get more people drawn to them, you have less resources to stop the things at your home .”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News delivers vital news to professionals in the energy and environment industries.