Sunday, September 24, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Sunday, September 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California fire season predicted to be shorter and less intense

The chances that California will see highly destructive mountain wildfires this year are low, thanks to an extraordinarily wet winter with historic snowfall.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After years of massive, destructive wildfires, California and much of the American West may see a shorter and more manageable wildfire season thanks to an extraordinarily wet winter.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state has only just begun to see a historic snowpack melt into streams and rivers, and the flows could be high for many weeks. The agency's Southern California coordination center reported in a briefing Monday that most of California has seen below normal temperatures since Oct. 1. These conditions have helped about 68% of the state exit drought conditions within three months — a feat that would have required two or three wet years otherwise.

Julie Kalansky, climate scientist and program manager at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that Northern California and central Sierra reservoirs have mostly reached or exceeded average water capacity levels. Southern Sierra reservoirs remain much below normal levels but are expected to approach historically high levels once all of the snow melts.

The wet winter and lingering snowpack may also translate to fewer wildfires. The Southern California coordination center reported that California typically experiences about 62 significant fires over more than 308,000 acres each year. But experts anticipate fewer than 100,000 acres will burn this year — a rare event.

Gina McGuire Palma of the agency's Great Basin coordination center said that coming out of extended drought years, soil moisture does improve as snow melts, subsequently priming grass growth. Once grasses begin to “cure” or dry out, expected to begin by sometime in July, is when the active season is really expected to kick off. 

“We’re expecting quite a bit of fine fuel growth,” Palma said. “That will kind of delay our start to our real active fire season. We're definitely looking at a shorter (fire) season at least.”

Once monsoon season arrives during July, thunder and lightning activity could spark fires. This will coincide with normal fire risk for lower elevation areas, as grasses dry out. However, few mountain fires are expected thanks to the impressive, ongoing snowpack.

The state has invested $2.7 billion into reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires by managing forests and bolstering manpower. Governor Gavin Newsom said this month that California added 37 additional fire crews statewide in 2022, alongside more helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. California is the first state in the nation to fly night firefighting operations, completing the first-ever operation last year.

In August 2020, Newsom signed the Shared Stewardship Agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, mapping out a 20-year strategy to achieve wildfire resilience and forest health. This commitment included a goal of jointly improving 1 million acres of California’s forest and wildlands annually by 2025.

Cal Fire treated approximately 110,925 acres across more than 600 projects last year in preparation for the fire season, surpassing the state goal to treat 100,000 acres by 2025. During the current season, more than 420 fuels reduction projects have been completed, treating about 43,065 acres.

Follow @@nhanson_reports
Categories / Environment, Regional, Weather

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.