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Epic Drought Brings Fear of Worst Wildfire Season Yet

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Epic Drought Brings Fear of Worst Wildfire Season Yet

The firefighters are primed, hoses at the ready. May and June are often the peak months for forest fires in the southwest of the U.S., and the outlook for this year is grim.

Forest fires rage in the mountains above the urban sprawl of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Photo credit: Erik Nielsen / Flickr

“I wish I could have some hope,” says Dr Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at North Arizona University. “It’s just a terrible situation in southern California.”

Covington, an internationally recognized expert on forest restoration, says a prolonged drought, higher temperatures and stronger than usual winds mean big wildfires are inevitable across the southwestern U.S.

The main season for wildfires in the region has in the past been from mid-May through till late September, but now forest fires burn virtually year round.

Vulnerable landscape

Climate change and misguided forestry policies have combined to present a landscape very vulnerable to devastating fires,” Covington told the Climate News Network.

“Since around 2000, we’ve seen more severe dry weather, matched with high winds throughout the western U.S. Intense firestorms are the result. Get in the vicinity of one of those and it’s like being near a blast furnace.”

Covington and other experts say it is vital that people and government policy adapt to the changes in climate.

Over the years, forests have been densely planted in many areas, and old forestry practices—such as clearing out forest and shrubland by regularly burning off old tree cover and dry shrubs—were stopped.

The result is not only an abundance of dense forested areas where fire can build up and spread easily, but also accumulations of dried-out grasses and shrubs—referred to as fine fuel.

Opening up forest areas and reintroducing controlled, periodic burning to rid the landscape of these tinder-dry fuels is key, according to Covington.

He says: “The U.S. Forest Service now sees opening up forest areas and restoring them to what they once were—right across the U.S.—as its primary goal. That’s a huge policy breakthrough.”

The past three years have been among the driest on record in California, and there are fears that the drought will continue.

Historic low

Wells have dried up in many areas, reservoirs in the state are at a record low, and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range—vital for feeding water on to the lands below—is at an historic low for the time of year.

For the first time in California’s history, mandatory water restrictions have been brought in, with cities and towns required to cut water use by 25 percent.

This does not, however, apply to the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, which uses up to 80 percent of water supplies.

Besides the drought, strong winds and higher temperatures, other factors have increased the risk of wildfires across the region. For example, building houses in forest and shrubland areas has also increased the danger of fires being ignited.

“We’ve just got to stop building in those places,” Covington says. “It was crazy 40 years ago—and it’s even more crazy now.”

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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