Is California’s wildfire season already drawing to a close?


The country’s firefighters have spent a record 69 days this year at their highest alert, the dreaded Level 5, rushing from one drought-triggered wildfire to another. Now they are finally getting at least some breathing space.

Federal fire managers lowered the national preparedness level to 3 last week after a handful of September storms hit the Pacific Northwest and residual rains fell in far northern California . This week, the first significant snow of the season began to fall over the Sierra Nevada, and a chance of downpours was forecast for the Bay Area on Friday, which helped fire crews coax long-lasting hells like the Dixie and Caldor fires. containment.

The fire season, however, is not over. While activity in much of the West has moderated in recent weeks, the latest forecast from the National Interagency Wildfire Center suggests that the potential for fire in California will persist until November. The greatest risk is in the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley, according to the report.

“We live in California. You have to stay on your toes until the grass turns green, ”said Brent Wachter, fire meteorologist at the Northern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Redding, who contributed to the federal fire forecast. published this week. “The areas we are really focusing on over the next few and a half to two months are the Greater Bay Area, including north of Mendocino County and the Sacramento Valley west of the Sierra Ridge. . “

These hot spots, according to the National Interagency Wildfire Center, missed the recent rains, with little expected. They are also particularly sensitive to dangerous sea winds in the fall, called Diablo winds. These hot blasts of air, which can speed up the spread of a fire like they did in the 2018 camp fire in Butte County, have a chance to develop as early as early next week. , depending on weather models.

The fall fire outlook remains rooted in the extraordinary drought conditions that have ravaged California for the past two years. The dry stretch only rivals the late 1970s for the worst on record.

Drought was the root of this year’s busy fire season, which has so far burned 2.49 million acres. While this is less than the record 4 million acres burned in the same period last year, it is still well above average. Fire experts say the dry tinder hills and valleys mean wetter-than-usual weather will be needed to end the fire season.

“Traditionally, we should see an end of season event between mid to late October in northern California,” said Brian Rhodes, deputy director of fire and aviation management for the US Forest Service. . “We see the signals and we see the storms wanting to come in, but they just don’t have the humidity yet.”

Rhodes said it would take at least an inch or more of rain to mitigate the fire danger. More importantly, he said, rain needs to fall over a period of several days to ensure the landscape is sufficiently soaked.

The front that swept northern California this week from the Gulf of Alaska, which brought down temperatures and brought light rain and snow to places, was only a fraction of what is necessary.

The system was helping firefighters make forays into 10 large wildfires burning across the state, including the ever-growing KNP complex in Sequoia National Park. It also prompted the state Department of Transportation to announce the temporary closure of highways on three mountain passes in the area between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, starting Thursday night, over fears of impassable snow. . But the cold front was expected to give way to hot, dry weather by the end of the weekend.

On Monday and Tuesday, the forecast called for possible Diablo winds. A high pressure system was to develop in the Great Basin, east of the Sierra, contrasting sharply with a low pressure system emerging along the coast, giving rise to the pressure differential that drives the east-west flows.

The National Weather Service on Monday released a fire weather watch for much of the bay area in the light of the winds, although independent meteorologist Jan Null of the Golden Gate Weather Services did not expect much of the threat. .

“Whether PG&E starts cutting people’s power or whether the weather service issues a red flag warning is their decision,” he said. “This will be the kind of weather when everything clears up and we see beautiful warm days.”

The National Interagency Wildfire Center is bracing for more wind episodes over the next two months, based on forecast models showing several weather patterns similar to next week’s.

While the Diablo winds have caused several devastating fires in recent years, most research suggests the winds don’t necessarily blow more frequently. On the contrary, the fall seasons where they blow have been hotter and drier, resulting in more problems.

“This year it’s hard to be confident in a significantly higher than normal number (Diablo wind events), but there will definitely be a few, and that’s when we’ll see our potential for greatest fire danger, ”said Wachter of the Northern California geographic area. Coordination center.

The long-range forecast for California, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, calls for milder weather through the end of the year.

The agency’s monthly report predicts above-average temperatures across the state, while southern California is forecast for below-average precipitation and northern California for average precipitation. The state’s rainy season typically doesn’t start in earnest until December, January, and February rounding out the three wet months.

The Climate Prediction Center has forecast that the winter months will continue to be drier than normal. The forecast, which is of particular concern to the state’s water managers, is based largely on a La Niña weather model that unfolds in the Pacific, which could lead to winter storms in northern California.

Meanwhile, state and federal fire departments were using the decline in fire activity to ensure fire crews were rested and to rethink where to most effectively send personnel and supplies. . About 8,400 firefighters continued to work in California this week, up from nearly double a month ago.

“Many of us, including myself, are looking forward to when we can make this transition (in the fall),” said Rhodes of the US Forest Service. “But it will be imperative for us to ensure that we maintain an adequate staff and presence over the next two months.”

Kurtis Alexander is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kurtisalexander


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