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Recent storm may have drenched the region, but wildfire threat will live on

After months of living with the feeling we were surrounded by drought-cured kindling a mere spark away from disaster, last weekend’s record-setting rainstorm brought with it the sense we had turned a corner on wildfire season.

The ground was finally wet again; the trees refreshed and vibrant with fall color; the air cool and humid, the way it should be with winter nearing. On cue, local Cal Fire officials lifted the seasonal ban on debris and agricultural burning, within the normal permit requirements and safety limitations.

But Cal Fire says the risk of wildfire remains real and will for the foreseeable future, absent several more drenching rains that, so far, don’t appear in the forecast.

It’s still peak season for the dry, north winds that sweep across the landscape and suck moisture from the forests and grasslands. Santa Ana winds in the Southland, where little rain fell, remain in season.

“We’re still not out of the woods, by any means,” Mendocino Unit Chief George Gonzalez said. “Realistically, it takes one windstorm, and everything’s susceptible to fire again.”

The state firefighting agency remains fully staffed and probably two months or more away from releasing any of its seasonal firefighters, said Jon Heggie, a Cal Fire Battalion Chief.

“We never really leave wildfire season in California,” Heggie said. “We’ve had devastating fires in December, January and February. What we do is we have different levels of preparation, and by that we mean staffing based on weather and fire response.”

That said, fire officials are grateful for the storm that blasted the region last weekend, dumping so much rain on the area it brought measured rainfall in Santa Rosa since Oct. 1 to 10.60 inches, a third of the 30-year seasonal annual average of 30.19 inches, the National Weather Service said.

By comparison, only 13.01 inches were measured at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport during the 2020-21 rainfall year. In 2019-20, 19.35 inches fell.

There might be a little bit of rain on Monday, too, though how much remains in question. It will certainly be nothing like last weekend, National Weather Service forecaster Sean Miller said.

The atmospheric river that just came and went “was basically a one-off,” Miller said. “It’s not any sort of trend toward the winter.”

But with a little bit less daylight each day and more overcast skies of late, there’s the possibility both downed trees and dead wood, and the struggling vegetation may hold their moisture longer than they otherwise would, said Northern Sonoma County Fire District Chief Marshall Turbeville, a battalion chief with Cal Fire.

Turbeville said he was feeling optimistic about prospects for a year without a major wildfire in the region, despite the terrifying odds going into summer and a second year of severe drought that made catastrophic fire somewhere in the area feel inevitable.

There were a few near-misses — the explosive, destructive Cache fire near Clearlake and the Hopkins fire near Lake Mendocino.

But with just a few days left in October — a particularly dreaded time of year — and fuels wet from the recent storm, the North Bay region appears on course to get through to November without a major wildfire for the first time since at least 2015.

“It still technically might be too early to say, but my gut feeling right now is we have dodged a bullet,” Turbeville said. He noted a couple of fires under an acre in Sonoma County during October and a few others in September — the largest of them charring about 15 acres northeast of Petaluma city limits, destroying a home and several outbuildings and prompting hundreds of evacuations.

He acknowledged that a fire torched about 150 acres near Tracy even as rain was falling all over Northern California, however.

Heggie also said that drought-weakened trees take time to absorb enough water from the earth to build their resilience to flames.

“The fire season is a year-round term,” Turbeville said. “It’s all based on the principle that we could have a fire, especially in California, on any day in the calendar year.”

“To be honest,” said Gonzalez, in Mendocino County, “I’m going to be on pins and needles until I’m not anymore.

“The new era of fighting fires in California is significantly different than when I started. There is no more easy calculation for these incidents, so we really are in a 12-month fire window.”

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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