The climate change debate currently pits the bulk of the scientific community against holdouts who don’t believe rising temperatures are the result of human activity. But in California, a state suffering from a historic drought, why the phenomenon is happening is less important than the simple fact that it is.
Forecasters and fire agencies have tossed aside their normal fire calendar — mid-May to mid-October — and now prepare for what some call a new normal of a greatly extended fire season. They are hiring extra staff and issuing more warnings. Some local officials have warned that fire season in some parts of California has basically become a year-round phenomenon.
The National Weather Service has been issuing an unprecedented number of fire forecasts and alerts in the thick of the usually-wet season, months earlier than normal. Its forecast offices have kicked into fire-season mode well ahead of schedule.
The Sacramento office, which issues fire forecasts for interior Northern California, decided last week to up its daily seven-day forecasts to twice a day, and its National Fire Danger Rating System, which measures the seriousness of fire conditions, is going out earlier.
“Climatology shows us we’ve been getting warmer and a little drier,” said Michelle Mead, a warning coordination meteorologist in Sacramento. “The fire season is not what it used to be 10 years ago.”
Research papers linking climate change to a persistent drought — which has parched California three years in a row — have been making the rounds among fire forecasters, said Brett Lutz, a meteorologist and climate program manager for the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore. “Climate change for the first time was actually a topic of conversation that was presented and discussed at length” in a recent meeting, he said.
“Regardless of what the cause is, they need to react short term. And for long-term budgeting and staffing, they need to prepare,” Lutz added. “And that’s where you get into ‘Is this the new normal or is this just a cycle?’ Do we need to adjust staffing to prepare for a fire season that’s longer than it used to be or beginning earlier than it used to?’’
In January the National Weather Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) beefed up staffing in California because of the drought. Cal Fire has brought in seasonal crews and just announced it had hired about 100 more firefighters in Northern California — again, several months earlier than usual. In all, nearly 400 firefighters have been added to the payroll since the beginning of the year.
“We’ve had quite a rash of red-flag warnings,” said Janet Upton, deputy director of communications.
Lutz’s office issues fire forecasts for Northern California and southern Oregon counties. Fire conditions and the amount of dry vegetation — the ideal fuel for wildfires — were as critical in January as they normally are in September, he said.
“Ultimately, there appears to be pretty strong connections between changes in circulation patterns associated with climate change that have led to the drought,” he said. “We absolutely have to have an awareness of the broader sphere of influence … I think of climate change as a long-range weather forecast. We need to monitor what occurs in order to predict the future better.”
From Jan. 1 to April 19 this year, Cal Fire responded to 1,040 fires that charred 2,393 acres, almost twice the number during the same period last year and a 150 percent increase in fires over an average year. Just in the past week, there were 87 new fires. “In some parts of California, the fire season is now year round,” Upton said. “We had a 350-acre fire in Humboldt County in mid-December. It’s the wettest county. That’s unheard of.”
Last year, the second year of the drought, Cal Fire was fighting to put out a 7,000-acre fire in an area that would normally be under feet of snow. “The anomalies are jumping out at us,” Upton said. “It’s underscoring the effect of climate change. We’re seeing all kinds of things that are going to end up making fire season longer.”
More than half of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2002.
The state extended the fire agency’s emergency fund to hire extra firefighters and keep air bases open to have air water tankers ready.
“Unheard of,” Upton said. “They would normally be in maintenance.”
The agency basically never gave its seasonal staff the season off in Southern California and the central Sierras. Several hundred firefighters who usually come on board in July were hired in winter. Cal Fire will reach peak hiring in early May. “We’re spending millions of dollars to do this,” Upton said.
About $12 million was added to fire prevention programs. Firefighters have started controlled burns, especially near populated areas, to clear flammable brush. “We just finished burning 30 acres around a community off Highway 50 in Sacramento,’’ Upton said. “We’re doing this all across the state.”
There are indications that El Niño could bring rain this fall, at least to Southern California. El Niño is a recurring band of warmer-than-usual water in the tropical Pacific Ocean that persists for several months and has significant effects on weather on the West Coast. “I don’t want people to be complacent if it rains,” Upton said. “Sporadic rains will be too little, too late.”
Upton has been doing her job for about 30 years. “My captain would talk about that one-in-a-career fire,” Upton said. “But my generation and the generation behind have had dozens of once-in-a-career fires. That’s alarming.”