Dry winter portends busy California wildfire season

By Peter Fimrite  San Francisco Chronicle

There have already been more than 800 wildfires in California this year – nearly triple the number for this time last year – prompting state fire officials this week to warn residents to prepare for what could be an infernal summer.


A shortage of rain and snow has left the state unusually dry, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Such dry conditions have led in the past to some of the state’s worst fire seasons, which is one reason why Gov. Jerry Brown declared this week Wildfire Awareness Week.


“What we’re seeing is unusual fire behavior and activity, and even though we’ve managed to keep most of them to between 2 and 5 acres, having that many this early is telling,” said Daniel Berlant, the spokesman for Cal Fire. “When we get to the drier months, the combination of high temperatures, low humidity and dry conditions will create the perfect environment for large, devastating wildfires.”


The cries of concern may sound like the same old doomsaying by Cal Fire, but fire experts and meteorologists insist there is something to it this year.


Paltry winter rainfall contributed to 818 wildfires in California from the beginning of January to the end of April, Berlant said. Although most of them were quickly contained to small areas – a total of only 888 acres burned – one fire in February burned 200 acres off Soda Canyon Road northeast of the city of Napa and required 95 firefighters from eight different agencies to put it out.


Last year, a very mild year, 313 wildfires had been reported at this time, but they burned 1,612 acres. The number of fires this year is above the five-year average of 634 wildfires, but below the average of 2,615 acres burned between January and April.


Berlant said the number of ignitions is a good indication of how favorable the fire conditions have been, particularly because most of the blazes were during normally cold months when firefighters are generally able to quickly put out flames.


The conditions have been good for fires because the amount of rain and snow has been lower than normal, he said. The water content of the snowpack in the Sierra was 40 percent of the average for May 1, leaving the grasslands dry.


Dry year, high danger

The National Weather Service has listed the Central and Southern California coasts and the northeast portion of the Sierra as places that will have an elevated risk for large damaging fires between May and August.


Cal Fire has warned in the past that fire danger is equally high during wet years because the rain causes more fuel to grow. The numbers don’t bear that out, said Jan Null, a meteorologist for Golden Gate Weather Services who put together a comparison of rainfall amounts and fire in California between 1970 and 2010.


In 2008, 6,255 fires burned nearly 1.6 million acres, the most in recorded history. So much land burned that year that the smoke blotted out the sun at times. Null said rainfall that year was 76 percent of normal.


About 1 million acres burned in 2007, a year in which rainfall was 58 percent of normal. Two other bad fire years, 1997 and 1999, also had less rain than the average.


“The four years with the most number of acres burned statewide between 1970 and 2010 were all below normal rainfall years,” Null said. “If we look at the 10 biggest years for number of acres burned, seven of those 10 were below normal rainfall. If we look at the 20 worst years for fire, 16 of those 20 were below normal rainfall. That’s 80 percent, so it’s a pretty good correlation.”


For comparison’s sake, the year 1983 had rainfall that was 179 percent of normal and only 90,000 acres burned that year, Null said.

“California dries out every year, so we have wildland fires every year,” he said, “but typically the drier the year, the more acres burn.”


Fewer firefighters

Fire behavior analysts are saying the conditions this year are a lot like they were in 2003, when the largest fire in state history raced through San Diego County. The so-called Cedar Fire killed 14 people, destroyed 2,232 homes and burned 280,200 acres, and was one of 15 wildfires that burned throughout Southern California that month.


All of which spells trouble for Cal Fire, which was forced by budget cuts over the past couple of years to reduce the number of seasonal firefighters from 3,100 to 1,700 and assign three instead of four firefighters to engines. In all, Cal Fire has slashed $80 million out of its budget over the past year.


Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of Cal Fire, said now is the time for people to begin clearing brush and burnable debris within 100 feet of their homes. Given that 95 percent of fires are caused by humans, he said, it is people who have the greatest potential for helping reduce fire danger.


“Before we get into the peak of fire season, residents should prepare themselves, their families and their homes for wildfires,” Pimlott said. “Defensible space and fire resistant building materials really gives a home the best chance of surviving a wildfire.”


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