Fire risk increases in Northern California Thursday night through Friday
The risk of fast-spreading fires could ease this weekend, but officials have expressed serious concerns about the coming months as all of California faces a historically severe drought that has turned many powder keg regions.
What you need to know about the spread of wildfires
A “critical” fire risk from Thursday to Friday
Due to a “critical” fire hazard on Thursday and Friday, the National Weather Service in Sacramento issued a red flag warning, its alert for a dangerous combination of heat, low humidity and strong winds that could cause fast-spreading fires. Under such conditions, the National Weather Service advises extinguishing cigarettes completely, covering burning barrels, and drowning fires with water – as a small spark could start a major fire.
The strongest winds are expected Thursday evening and Friday, with gusts of up to 55 mph and single-digit humidity percentages. Wind advisories have also been issued for higher ground in the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of the Sierra Nevada and foothills.
With temperatures rising this week, several wildfires have broken out across the state, most of which have not seen significant rainfall in months.
In April, the Far North Mountains enjoyed a welcome respite from this winter’s record dryness, but not all areas were so lucky, including the Sacramento Valley and much of central and from southern California.
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Since Jan. 1, downtown Sacramento has seen about 2 inches of rain — more than 10 inches below normal, according to Scott Rowe, a weather service bureau meteorologist there. Further north, Redding, Calif., received just over 4 inches of rain in 2022 — a deficit of over 15 inches.
The outlook for wildfires has highlighted the risk for Northern California this spring and summer — a forecast that appears to be coming to fruition.
“Confidence is high for an early start to the big fire season,” said an outlook released May 1 by meteorologists from the Northern California Geographic Coordination Center Predictive Services. Fire potential is expected to increase in May for the Sacramento Valley westward into the Bay Area and spread to much of the region in June and July.
Extensible window for destructive fires
Isaac Sanchez, communications battalion chief for Cal Fire, said much of the state was already primed to burn.
“The long-term effects of drought and climate change have very real impacts on the moisture in our living fuels,” he said. “The fuel bed is now ready to burn in a way that isn’t usually the case until late summer.”
Sanchez said in his 23 years of experience with California wildfires, the risk of major wildfires usually doesn’t arrive until late July or August.
“This window for large destructive fires continues to expand each year,” he said.
Early snowmelt has also allowed wildfires to move to higher elevations that are expected to be too wet to burn even in summer – a trend documented with climate change that appears to be repeating itself this year, given the very low mountain snowpack.
Some of the fires that have already occurred this year, although not particularly large, are an indication of potentially explosive conditions on the ground.
“The Coastal Fire that burned in Orange County is a graphic example of how responsive our fuel beds are today,” Sanchez said.
Southern California fire rages across 200 acres, damaging Orange Co.
The rapid 200-acre blaze swept over a hillside in Laguna Niguel to destroy 20 homes and damage 11 others on May 11. It was considered unusual because it developed under a moist westerly wind from the Pacific Ocean – a far cry from the typical ‘fire weather’ in Southern California, which features dry Santa Ana winds. blowing from land to sea. The Emerald Fire, which forced evacuations in coastal Orange County in February, was another unusual fire as it occurred in the middle of winter. It erupted during Santa Ana winds and a heat wave, amid this winter’s prolonged and record-breaking dry spell.
The area’s vegetation has suffered from years of drought and heat stress; at least seven of the last 10 years have been dry. During the 2012-16 drought, Orange County actually missed two full seasons of precipitation, according to Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. And two wet years – 2017 and 2019 – did not provide enough rainfall to recover from those deficits. The dry start to 2022 was also punctuated by record-breaking heat.
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Robert Krohn, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Riverside, Calif., said much of the area’s native shrub vegetation is dead or dying, leaving behind an abundance of flammable material. Given these conditions, he expects the outlook for wildfires in Southern California to also raise “above normal” risk levels later this year, especially for the winter season. Santa Ana winds in the fall.
Rebecca Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California’s West on Fire project, said severe wildfires in recent years are affecting people across the state and are no longer just in remote rural and forest communities. .
“We see these fires in the north and the south; in rural, suburban and urban areas,” she said. “Even if you are unaffected by the fire itself, you are going to be affected by the smoke it produces.”
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The good news is that there are clear indications that communities are reacting to the threat.
Since the devastating wildfires of 2017 and 2018, there has been a huge increase in participation in the Firewise program for community wildfire preparedness and the number of wildfire-related bills that have been introduced in the legislature of the state, Miller said. This has only continued with difficult, even record-breaking, fire seasons in 2020 and 2021.
With another tough summer and fall ahead, she has some practical advice for those who may need to evacuate due to a wildfire.
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“You should have a go-bag prepared if you are in a high fire risk area, especially if there are serious fires on the horizon,” she said. She also recommends taking photos of your home and belongings for insurance purposes.
“It’s better to take the time to prepare before the season than when a wildfire is on the way,” she said.