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Why California’s wildfire year is below average

California has seen several serious fires this year, including the Mosquito Fire, which continues to burn east of Sacramento.

However, after wet spring weather and cool temperatures delayed the onset of peak fire activity, overall wildfire activity in the state has been “surprisingly benign,” said Craig Clements, director of the San Jose State University Fire Weather Lab.

“But we’re not off the hook yet,” Clements told CNN. Hot, dry offshore winds, often referred to as Diablo or Santa Ana winds, can trigger a huge wildfire threat, and wind events typically don’t begin until fall and winter.

“If we get these big offshore wind events in southern California like the Santa Anas winds, the Diablo winds in northern California, it could lead to bigger fires,” he said.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jon Heggie says wildfires have burned about 365,000 acres so far this year in California, which is well below the area burned year-to-date in recent years. . In 2021, more than 2.5 million acres had burned through August, while 4.3 million acres had burned in 2020.

Heggie called the area burned this year a “dramatic” drop from previous years.

Yet California remains in a multi-year mega-drought that has drained water supplies and primed vegetation for landscape-altering wildfires. Drought conditions are present in 99% of the state, according to the US Drought Monitor; The conditions are part of the reason California has seen an increase in fire activity in recent years, scientists say.
Clements pointed to three factors contributing to this year’s below-average fire activity: luck, firefighting strategies and day-to-day weather.
Spring brought favorable weather with cooler temperatures and some rainfall, but summer brought hotter and drier weather. California experienced one of its worst September heat waves on record earlier this month, which has fueled the state’s current active fires, including the Mosquito Fire which has burned more than 76,000 acres and is became the largest in the state so far this year, according to CalFire.

“While climate change has its fingerprints all over these larger fires, it’s daily weather that determines fire behavior,” he said.

Daniel Swain, a climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that although less area has burned so far this year, individual wildfires have been quite deadly and destructive. This year’s fires have killed nine people and destroyed more than 800 structures, according to Cal Fire.

“When people talk about this, they often talk about the area burned and in fact not only does that not tell the whole story, but it arguably doesn’t tell most of what is important as to why we care about the wildfires in a societal context,” Swain told CNN. “Just because the area burned was less than in recent years, the impacts of these fires were actually still very high.”

And while the acres burned are lower than the past five years, Heggie said fire conditions in California can change quickly with the seasons.

“It can change very quickly in California, and while we’re starting to think of it as a time of transition, we’re still staying vigilant and encouraging the public to do the same,” Heggie said.

Janice Coen, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told CNN despite the high heat and dry summer conditions, the reason there hasn’t been a major fire that people in the West would expect, this is because not all conditions were present at the same time.

“Even though there have been a lot of ignitions across the country, there hasn’t been an alignment of conditions to allow a lot of them to grow,” Coen told CNN. “Things may change. We are heading into a time when a different type of fire is likely, so we could see more activity in Southern California than we have” so far .

Upstream water used to keep Lake Powell afloat is running out
Human-caused climate change has played a role in the worsening and likelihood of extreme fires. Drought and extreme heat waves in the West have laid the groundwork for dozens of major wildfires in recent years. However, just because the climate crisis is accelerating, experts say there is still variability from year to year.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the risk of large fires breaking out in California will remain low for the rest of the week due to above-average vegetation wetness due in part to recent rainfall, including from the hurricane. Kay.

Swain said individual rain events won’t erase deep-rooted drought, but they do help alleviate short-term fire conditions.

“It’s one of those weather patterns where it’s kind of a boom or bust,” Swain said of the rainfall. “We get a decent amount of rain, or probably get none at all, so fingers crossed, but it’s been a bit of a weird year.”

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