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Not-so rainy season: Bone-dry February to stay that way, possibly boosting fire danger

Unpredictable Rain Seasons In Santa Rosa

Precipitation totals during the first five months of the rain year, from Oct. 1 through February, has fluctuated sharply since 2015.

2015-2016: 20.11 inches

2016-2017: 51.73 inches

2017-2018: 13.98 inches

2018-2019: 34.73 inches

*2019-2020: 15.82 inches

*Total through Feb. 10

Source: National Weather Service

Catching a bit of TV news on Tuesday morning, Marshall Turbeville was struck by one story in particular.

“There was snow in Baghdad,” said Turbeville, the Geyserville fire chief. “That's just weird.”

It was unusual, indeed: the capital of Iraq saw snow for just the second time in over a century. Turbeville then turned his attention to a meteorological anomaly closer to home.

In a drier than usual rainy season, February in the North Bay has been downright arid. There's been zero rain this month, and none is expected for at least several weeks.

“Basically, we just have a stuck pattern” that almost certainly won't be moving along anytime this month, said Rob Carlmark, a meteorologist for KXTV News in Sacramento.

Since Jan. 1, there's only been 2.38 inches of rain at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. Typically, the first two months of the year bring 12 inches of rain to the city. But there's been no shortage of unusual warmth. On Tuesday, it hit 80 degrees in Santa Rosa, shattering the previous mark for the day of 74 in 1996. The day before the temperature reached 79.

Should Santa Rosa go rainless this month, it will be the city's first completely dry February since at least 1902, the earliest year for which the National Weather Service has data.

While it's not unusual to see a few weeks of sunshine in the midst of the North Bay rainy season, the length - and open-endedness - of this dry stretch is beginning to fray some nerves. “When's it going to start raining again?” asked Turbeville, “The return of rainy season is now an unknown.”

A lack of rain in these typically wet months increases the chances of an earlier start to wildfire season. But fires aren't the only concern. Ranchers need winter rainfall to revitalize the pastures that feed and fatten their livestock.

“Everything's still green right now,” said Joe Pozzi, who runs sheep and cattle on his family's ranch in the hills above Valley Ford.

Calves are born in September and October, lambs in December and January. The spring grasses are vital to their growth.

“That's what puts the pounds on the animals,” Pozzi said. “The soil's starting to warm up, the days are getting longer, and we're starting to see some growth in our pastures. But we definitely need some rain in the next five, six weeks to keep things going. That's really a concern.”

While plants haven't yet had their growth stunted, the moisture they contain is steadily diminishing. For a series of controlled burns taking place around Ukiah, crews from Cal Fire's Mendocino unit struggled in December to get anything to catch fire.

Fuels were “too wet,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin said. “We tried again in January, too wet.”

The third time was the charm. With the warm temperatures Monday and Tuesday, crews had no trouble burning several hundred acres above Lake Mendocino.

While a paucity of rain would usually stoke worries about reservoir water levels, that's not the case in Sonoma County. Between last year's wet winter and conservation being practiced by consumers, “right now, in terms of water supply, we're looking pretty good.” said Brad Sherwood, spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

While a two- or three-week dry spell can be unnerving, said climate scientist Daniel Swain, author of the authoritative Weather West blog, “it's not a big problem.”

More worrisome, he said, are multiple dry months during California's wet season. “We're getting closer to that territory now.”

During California's rainy season, January and February typically are more reliably wet, Swain said. When those “core months” fail to deliver adequate precipitation as they are sure to do this year, “it means we've missed, essentially, our best months to accumulate water,” he said.

Following what is expected to be a bone-dry February, Swain said, “then everything hinges on March” - which is unlikely to make up the rainfall deficit.

Since the year 2000, Santa Rosa has averaged 4.33 inches of rain in March. With precipitation so far in this rain year - which began on Oct. 1, 2019 - at 49% of average, 4.33 inches would scarcely put a dent in the shortfall.

Spring downpours are certainly not atypical: Following an atmospheric river that dumped 16.97 inches last February, causing the most severe Russian River flooding in a quarter century, 7.71 inches fell in March, followed by another 4.41 inches in May - more than four times the average for that month.

Those late rains, Swain points out, yield a burst of brush and grasses which, by August, have turned brown and become potential wildfire fuel.

As Carlmark of KXTV News said, substandard rainy seasons don't necessarily correlate with catastrophic fires. Monsoon-like conditions in the first two months of 2017 deluged Santa Rosa with 33.65 inches. That October brought the Tubbs fire. Last year's Kincade fire ignited in October, despite the nearly 33 inches of rain that fell in the first three months of 2019.

The reality in California, Geyserville's Fire Chief Turbeville said, “is that there can always be a bad fire.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

Unpredictable Rain Seasons In Santa Rosa

Precipitation totals during the first five months of the rain year, from Oct. 1 through February, has fluctuated sharply since 2015.

2015-2016: 20.11 inches

2016-2017: 51.73 inches

2017-2018: 13.98 inches

2018-2019: 34.73 inches

*2019-2020: 15.82 inches

*Total through Feb. 10

Source: National Weather Service

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