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‘Extreme wildfire threat’ forecast for Northern California this summer

5 Things to Know About the 2021 Wildfire Season So Far

*13,604 acres have burned in California this year, nearly eight times the burned acres recorded at the same time last year.

* Moisture levels in brush are at record lows for this time of year. Other signs of potential fire intensity are at levels normally seen in mid- to late June.

*Cal Fire has suspended all permits for outdoor residential burning as of May 10 due to high fire danger posed by dry brush and weather conditions.

*Forecast high pressure systems are expected to heat up inland areas this summer, allowing temperatures to range a few degrees above normal.

*Residents should prepare by signing up for emergency alerts, knowing evacuation routes, having a go-bag and respirator mask on hand, and readying an inside space where you can deploy an air cleaner or filter.

Historically dry conditions and temperatures predicted to be above normal this summer mean Northern California residents once again face the threat of extreme wildfires like those that have occurred with increasing regularity over the past several years, according to AccuWeather, a leading U.S. meteorological service.

The ominous forecast, though not surprising, brings into sharper view what historic drought and climate change have clarified for residents in recent weeks: catastrophic wildfires amid extremes in weather — already a regular part of life now for denizens of the American West — are likely to return in the coming months, and likely earlier in the season and extend over a longer period of time than usual.

The danger is exacerbated this year by two successive years of rainfall so low in Northern California their combined total is barely commensurate with a normal year, leaving forests and brush tinder dry, said David Samuhel, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.

“The forests are drying. They’re turning more brown. There was hardly any new growth over the course of the rainy season, just because it was extremely dry,” Samuhel said, citing findings by the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. “That’s one thing we’re really concerned about is just how dry the forests are.”

In addition, inland temperatures are expected to be several degrees above normal for much of the summer across much of the west, contributing to extreme fire behavior, he said.

Already, fuel conditions are what they normally would be in late June or early July, said Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls, who heads up state firefighting efforts in Sonoma County.

“What we’ve learned is that we’re one wind event away from a catastrophic fire, so every year has the potential to be a devastating year. But as we come into fire season 2021, we’re near or above record conditions for our energy release component,” Nicholls said, referring to a composite index that reflects the moisture content of live and dead fuels and their potential fire intensity. “We shouldn’t have the conditions we’re having until later in the summer, so the conditions we’re having now just prolong the threat.”

AccuWeather Wildfire Risk Map 2021
AccuWeather Wildfire Risk Map 2021

Those assessments join the steadily worsening outlook that has taken shape in the past few weeks, since March rains failed to put any significant dent in the now two-year rain deficit.

The state now stands at the brink of its long arid season, with reservoirs at historic lows for this time of year, low snow pack levels and moisture levels so low it has stunted spring growth in brush and trees. Seasonal fuel moisture levels in plants have been on a downward slide now for the last five years.

“That means those plants are going to be more flammable in the fall,” said Craig Clements, director of the San Jose State Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center.

There key “wild cards” that will dictate how bad a season it could be, particularly the degree and number of wind events and the presence of lightning, Samuhel said.

Last year’s wildfire season was the worst in California on record, with more than 4.2 million acres burned, more than 10,000 structures damaged or destroyed, and at least 31 fatalities. It was largely set off by an August lightning siege that ignited hundreds of fires around Northern and Central California in the wake of a multi-day, triple-digit heatwave, followed by period of high winds.

Those infernos included the 363,220-acre LNU Lightning Complex that burned across large portions of the North Bay, including Sonoma and Napa counties, and the million-acre-plus August Complex in Mendocino, Lake and three other counties — the largest wildfire in California history

The last time that kind of dry lightning storm hit was in June 2008, when the fuels were moister and the fires did less damage, Clements said. Those fires still burned 1.2 million acres in California, including nearly 55,000 acres in Mendocino County.

“If we miss out on lightning events (this year) “that’s going to be key,” Samuhel said.

He nonetheless forecast 9.5 million acres of land would burn across the western United States, about 140% of the 10-year average, with “above average wildfire activity” across California, but especially in Northern and Central California.

“High risk areas like Northern California are likely to take the brunt of these effects,” he said.

Nicholls said that a statewide surge that allowed 1,399 seasonal firefighters to come on duty a few weeks earlier than usual put four additional engines on standby in Sonoma County as of April 26.

5 Things to Know About the 2021 Wildfire Season So Far

*13,604 acres have burned in California this year, nearly eight times the burned acres recorded at the same time last year.

* Moisture levels in brush are at record lows for this time of year. Other signs of potential fire intensity are at levels normally seen in mid- to late June.

*Cal Fire has suspended all permits for outdoor residential burning as of May 10 due to high fire danger posed by dry brush and weather conditions.

*Forecast high pressure systems are expected to heat up inland areas this summer, allowing temperatures to range a few degrees above normal.

*Residents should prepare by signing up for emergency alerts, knowing evacuation routes, having a go-bag and respirator mask on hand, and readying an inside space where you can deploy an air cleaner or filter.

Two new firefighter hand crews and two California Conservation Corps hand crews also have been allocated to the region, which also is getting one of the new Sikorsky FIREHAWK helicopters that can transport 1,000 gallons of water, to replace an older Huey.

“That triples, basically, the water delivery,” Nicholls said.

Sonoma County Fire District Capt. Colin Ramos, who is training up new recruits for the growing department, said local firefighting forces also have continued to work each year to master best practices and improve community outreach, notification protocols, evacuation readiness and overall preparedness.

“We’re prepping for a seasons that’s going to be as bad or worse than it was last season,” he said. “One of the benefits, though, is there’s a lot of preparation that we’ve done since all of these fires. We’re really done of good job of reaching out and finding those flaws and weaknesses in our system and really trying to address them.”

Civilians are increasingly involved, as well. They include residents in the Alpine Valley area around Calistoga and St. Helena roads, where last year’s Glass fire left a wide path of destruction three years after the Tubbs fire laid waste to neighboring areas to the north.

Lynn Garric, who lost her home off Alpine Road in the 2017 Tubbs fire, said the Upper Mark West Fire Safe Council is working with the Sonoma Resource Conservation District to score one of the county’s new fuels management grants. The funding will help establish 100 feet of defensible space around homes in the area and to reinforce and maintain some of the fire breaks established last year and three years earlier, in part to secure evacuation routes in the event a new fire comes.

Another neighbor, ranch manager Vinny Martin, was instrumental in stopping last year’s Glass fire by bulldozing a line that helped prevent it from reaching Gates Road and the dense little community there. Through gofundme, he has raised more than $9,500 to get the fuel management work started.

“There’s just so many houses down there, and the people are just so vulnerable,” Martin said.

The area about which he’s particularly concerned is a wedge of land that’s between the Tubbs and Glass fire burns zones that hasn’t burned in more than a century. “It’s just ripe,” Martin said.

The entire neighborhood has contributed to the effort.

“It’s so dry out here right know that what you’d usually see toward the end of June, we’re seeing already,” said Martin, who hosted Ramos and other instructors for some recruit training on Wednesday.

The situation, said Nicholls, is “definitely weighing heavy on us, but we’re getting our folks ready to go and working with the communities to make sure they’re as ready as they can be before we get into those critical burning conditions.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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