Jun 2, 2023 - Climate

Vegetation boosted by record rain could fuel California wildfires

The Zogg fire near the town of Ono in Shasta County, Calif., in 2020. Photo: Go Nakamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Heavy rains this year may have lessened drought throughout the state, but they also created potential wildfire fuel.

Why it matters: Cal Fire reports 7,490 wildfires last year razed 362,455 acres, killing nine people and destroying or damaging 876 structures.

  • While the severity of this year's fire season in California is dependent on a variety of factors, officials say people need to remain diligent about fire prevention.

Driving the news: California has seen larger, more destructive wildfires in recent years. In addition, the state has been battered by extreme precipitation events during an unusually wet winter, both of which are tied in part to climate change.

  • The state saw intense growth in vegetation thanks to those record-breaking rains and that vegetation has the potential to turn into kindling during fire season, Isaac Sanchez, a CalFire battalion chief, told The Guardian.

What's happening: The severity of fire season in areas with heavy brush and trees, like in the Sierra Nevada, will be "highly dependent on the timing and magnitude of the melt off," Adrienne Freeman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told Axios.

  • One of the biggest factors in fire spread, she said, is fuel moisture.

What they're saying: "If everything melts and it gets really hot and really dry, the fuels are going to dry," Freeman said.

  • Monsoonal patterns also play a role in the severity of fire season, Freeman said. Last year, a monsoonal pattern brought moisture along with lightning, which meant "even though we had extremely dry conditions, we didn't see the fire season that we could have," she said.
  • "How [and when] lightning comes to us always has a big influence on our fire season," she said.

Of note: In central California and the central Sierra, the storm-damaged "dead and down" trees, which dry "exponentially faster" than live ones, will also influence fire season, Freeman added.

Zoom in: In San Francisco, you've probably seen a lot of weeds in your garden or popping up through the concrete on the sidewalk.

  • Those fuels are more susceptible to human-caused fires involving cars, cigarettes, burning debris and more, Freeman explained.

Between the lines: State Farm last week announced it is no longer offering home insurance to new customers in California due to wildfires risks, rising construction costs and other challenges.

What's next: As we head into fire season, it's important that people are aware of the conditions surrounding their homes and do what they can to create a defensible property, Freeman said. That "is one of the greatest indicators of whether their home will survive a wildfire," Freeman said.

  • Meanwhile, PG&E has begun inspecting power lines in the South Bay to ensure they're secure and not at risk of coming down during high winds, NBC Bay Area reports.

The bottom line: There are so many considerations when it comes to fires and fire starts,” she said. “Human-caused is its own, lightning-caused is another.”

  • "In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter what the start [of the fire] is," she said. "We have a non-resilient forest, in many cases, that’s exacerbated by climate change."
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