A wet winter could delay — but not prevent — the 2023 fire season

Against the backdrop of rolling green hills at the Prado Helibase in Chino this week, San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Muncie delivered a poignant message:

“These hills will turn brown, and burn,” he said.

The early look at the 2023 fire season comes as California continues to deal with the fallout from this year’s wet winter, including major flooding and record-deep snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada.

But while the remnants of rain and snow may help keep the state’s vegetation moist longer, there’s no guarantee it will prevent burning of now-green landscapes. In fact, it may just delay the start of fire season.

“Don’t let the rain and snow fool you,” said Joe Tyler, director and fire chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It will only be a matter of time before all the fuel dries up, providing fuel loading, and potentially large and damaging wildfires.”

For proof, Tyler said, look no further than the Knob Fire, which broke out in the San Bernardino National Forest last week and quickly grew to more than 200 acres.

The fire is a “stark reminder that soon after the snow melts and the rain stops, that fuels are still susceptible to burning,” he said. In fact, the state has already responded to more than 640 wildfires this year, including 135 last week.

“As we continue into the summer — as the grasses recover and we start to see the brush dry out — then we’re going to see a change in the fire environment that will include that brush,” Tyler said. said “Now I’d argue that wood isn’t going to burn for a while, but we saw that stark reminder, once again, here last week in the Knob Fire.”

Still, some are not convinced. After record-breaking, drought-prone wildfire seasons in 2020 and 2021, last year was relatively contained, burning less than 400,000 acres in California. By comparison, more than 4 million acres burned in 2020, the state’s worst fire year on record.

Tyler and other officials attributed the decline to several factors, including more than 109,000 acres of vegetation management, improved efforts by residents to harden their homes and clear vegetation from properties, and nighttime Increased firefighting capabilities such as timed airstrikes. Last year, crews logged more than 45 hours of night flights, including over the Fairview fire in Riverside County.

The state’s $2.7-billion multi-year Wildfire Resilience Program Jessica Morris, deputy secretary for forests and wildland resiliency with the California Natural Resources Agency, said 42 state parks are starting to see results from prescribed burning activities, about 1,200 fire control plans and other similar efforts. have been”.

But last year’s low area was also an element of luck, experts said, along with some timely rainstorms that helped douse the flames.

Although short, last year’s fire season was deadly and destructive. The flames leveled the town of Lincoln Heights in Siskiyou County, damaged hundreds of structures in Mariposa County and destroyed at least 20 homes in Orange County. Nine people, all civilians, were killed.

For these reasons, officials this week urged residents to be vigilant.

“Already in 2023, our state has experienced severe flooding and two federally declared disasters. We also know that the rain and snow from these spring storms will lead to wildfires later in the year. makes the risk more acute,” said Sherry Saro, assistant director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

He and other officials encouraged Californians. Now prepare for the fireincluding brushing up on evacuation routes, packing go-bags, signing up for county alerts and making plans to keep people and pets safe.

The state’s early-season approach, provided at the start of Wildfire Preparedness Week, largely squares with the National Interagency Fire Center, the Idaho-based command hub for nationwide wildfire response.

This agency’s approach, Also released this week.noted that “greening continues across much of the West, but fuel moisture is decreasing in the lower elevations of the Southwest and parts of southern California.”

Wet conditions in the region mean many fine fuels are likely to dry out at lower-than-normal elevations for at least two to four weeks, the outlook says. Widespread snowfall is also likely to “significantly delay the onset of fire activity” above 7,000 feet.

But while fire danger is expected to remain below normal in most parts of California through June, the risk will increase to “normal potential” in most parts of the state by July and August, according to the outlook.

Jaime Gamboa, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region, said federal officials are also preparing for this year’s fire season. About 60% of California’s forests are federally managed.

Gamboa said the agency recently signed one. Memorandum of Understanding “Enhancing Cooperation Between Private Forestry and Public Lands Operations During Wildfires,” with the National Forest Owners Alliance. He said the agreement will increase the ability of firefighters to make early attacks on fires in areas adjacent to Forest Service lands.

Despite the year’s historic rain and snow, “we must not let our guard down,” Cal Fire’s Tyler said.

“I want to emphasize that wildfires will continue in California, and will continue to be a part of our lives despite this year’s rain.” “It’s not a matter of if, but when, your family will be affected by a wildfire.”

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