How bad will California's fire season be? Here's what we know

Los Angeles, California - Forecasters take into account many factors when predicting how active a fire season might be, said Nick Nauslar, fire meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

September 28, 2020: wildfire flames tore through the famous wine region in Calistoga, California.
September 28, 2020: wildfire flames tore through the famous wine region in Calistoga, California.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

"When we're looking at creating our monthly and seasonal forecasts, we're looking at where there are areas of drought," he said.

"And then in the shorter term, are we going to see weather conducive for fire ignition and spread?"

These are the points taken into consideration when forecasting a fire season:

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Firefighting Houston mayor's longstanding battle with local fire union goes up in a blaze
  • Long-term drought: drought cures vegetation and soils, priming the landscape to burn.
  • Short-term drought: spring rain can delay the start of the fire season, but in some lower-elevation areas, it can also feed the growth of vegetation that will dry out and fuel fires later in the summer.
  • Climate: hot, dry conditions and – in particular – intense heat waves have been linked to more active fire seasons.
  • Weather: meteorologists consider both long- and short-range weather forecasts when predicting whether conditions will be conducive to fires starting and spreading rapidly. Lightning storms spark fires, and dry and windy conditions can further promote rapid fire spread. Atmospheric instability can result when warm air near the surface meets cooler air aloft, allowing fires to develop massive plumes that create their own weather.
  • Human behavior: humans are responsible for the majority of fire ignitions, Nauslar explained. Although their behavior is impossible to predict, fire managers tend to see an uptick in fire starts on weekends, especially holiday weekends. Right now, Nauslar said, California's mountains and foothills are projected to see "above normal significant fire potential" starting in July and maybe even June.

But there are a couple of key variables that haven't yet taken shape.

Here's what we know heading into this fire season:

California is in a long-term drought, and vegetation and soils are very dry.

The water content of the Sierra snowpack, which is the state's largest naturally occurring reservoir, has dwindled to 28% of normal for this time of year.

Forecasters expect the region will remain largely dry through June.

Temperatures are expected to be above normal this summer.

Here's what we don't know yet:

Will there be an above-normal incidence of lightning and wind events that spark fires and drive their spread?

Will tropical-storm remnants traveling up the coast or other weather systems create instability in the atmosphere that can also result in lightning and nurture rapid fire spread?

How many fires will be started by accidents, arson, downed power lines, or other human causes, and how large will they grow?

How climate change and human activity are elevating the risk of wildfires

September, 21, 2020: firefighters rest on the Angeles Crest Highway as smoke from the Bobcat Fire envelops the San Gabriel Mountains in Juniper Hills, California.
September, 21, 2020: firefighters rest on the Angeles Crest Highway as smoke from the Bobcat Fire envelops the San Gabriel Mountains in Juniper Hills, California.  © IMAGO / UPI Photo

Unfortunately, experts say several factors are helping to elevate California's significant wildfire risk as time goes on.

Here's how climate change and other shifts in human activity are helping predispose the state to more-damaging fire seasons:

Hotter, drier conditions – with more intense periods of precipitation and longer dry spells between them – means vegetation is primed to burn.

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Firefighting Firefighters use jaws of life to rescue woman from fetish stunt gone wrong!

There's some evidence that climate change is increasing the incidence of lightning as the atmosphere becomes hotter at the surface and less stable, boosting the risk of thunderstorms.

Drought-stressed trees are vulnerable to fatal bark beetle infestations, and the resulting stands of dead fuel that accumulate in forests can make fires burn hotter and spread more rapidly.

Rising temperatures mean more precipitation is falling as rain rather than as snow, and the snowpack is melting earlier in the year, leading to fire seasons that start sooner and last longer.

More humans are moving into previously unpopulated wildland areas, increasing the likelihood that they will start fires in these areas and that the resulting fires will threaten people and their homes.

Cover photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

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