Record rains this winter may have dampened Northern California, but wildfire season is still coming — and certain regions will see it sooner than others.
Temperatures in the region are warming up, teetering in the high 80s and low 90s in Sacramento, slowly drying up land drenched in early 2023 storms.
According to the state’s Department of Water Resources, California is experiencing one of the largest snowpacks in history, with about 126 inches of snow depth and 54 inches of snow water as of April 3, the last official measurement.
Typically, peak Northern California fire season begins in June or July and can run through November, according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association.
Ken Pimlott, retired chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said because of the snowpack, the onset of this season could be delayed a number of months compared to the last several years.
“Predicting any fire season is always a challenge,” said Pimlott, who now works with El Dorado County Fire Safe Council on wildfire preparedness and prevention projects.
“You can’t pin down exactly what will happen because weather patterns and things can change over the course of the summer.”
While there might be a delay, parts of the region are more at risk for fires than others — and the threat isn’t going away.
Where are fires more likely this year?
The likelihood of wildfires in an area will depend on the landscape.
With the winter rain and snow, certain ecosystems in Northern California may be spared of some of the ravenous fires that usually spark in late spring to fall, said Dr. Andrew Latimer, professor of plant ecology at the University of California, Davis.
Areas with more trees and shrubs, such as conifer forests in the mountains and redwood forests, may have less fire activity in the summer compared to the last two years, said Latimer, who researches how forests and grasslands respond to drought and fire.
This is due to the snowpack, which will likely last longer into the summer, giving fires less time to start and spread, he said.
There are also more speed bumps for fires in the mountains, Latimer said, such as streams, wet soil and plants that have moisture in their leaves.
Pimlott said that fire season will be off to a later start, and mid and upper-elevation forest lands, specifically, will take longer to dry out this year.
However, it’s not looking great in lower areas.
Last season’s wet weather resulted in a lot more grass growth in parts of the Central Valley and foothills, Latimer said.
While this is good for grazing cattle, it has also created more fuel for burning.
“I would expect more fire activity in grassland areas this year, especially later in the summer,” he said.
When will fire season start in 2023?
It depends on weather conditions and when vegetation starts to dry out and become flammable.
Pimlott said he thinks it’s possible that fires may start burning in the lower elevations from the valley floor all the way up into the foothills in May and June, due to the grass growth and drying, but it depends on the upcoming weather patterns.
He said grassland areas will start to dry out over the next two months with the recent high temperatures and windy conditions.
“That’s where you’ll start to see your fire activity,” he said. “(It) will be in the lower elevations over the next several months.”
While people may be focused on the snowpack melting and potential flooding, Pimlott said we can’t lose sight of wildfires — and the delay gives you time to prepare.
“It is California and so we will very quickly turn into fire season conditions,” he said. “Although those may be delayed, they will come.”
He advises people to follow the state’s Ready, Set, Go fire preparedness guide, which includes making sure their homes can defend against fire embers and having an evacuation plan. Residents should also make sure their homes are clearly marked with addresses and ensure vent openings and roofs are up to standard.
For the most part, experts are saying fire potential in Northern California will be “normal.”
According to an April outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center, limited fire activity typically occurs in April and May, with less than one large fire. The agency forecasts that June and July will have near to below normal fire activity. In June, typically there are one to two large fires and in July, there are one to three.
There are no active wildfires in California as of Friday, Cal Fire reports. So far in 2023, as of April 28, 131 acres have been burned with 408 wildfires in the state. But there have been no fatalities or damaged structures.
Lightning fires remain a concern this season
It’s hard to be sure of what kind of weather California is heading into this summer.
Latimer of UC Davis recalled the lightning storms that started multiple fires at once in California in 2020.
From August to early September, almost 14,000 lightning strikes sparked 900 fires and burned more than 1.5 million acres in California, according to NASA. This included the August Complex fire that ravaged Willows and the Mendocino National Forest.
“If that happens again, late in the summer,” Latimer said, “we could still have a lot of fire.”
“But those are kind of rare events,” he added. “… It’s unlikely that would happen, but it’s always a risk.”
According to the fire center’s outlook, lightning that may occur in April to June “is not likely to be impactful and is unlikely to be very impactful across the higher elevations during July other than creating some small, multistrategy fires.”
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