"California is the state with the highest fire threat in the US and although California's been lucky this year, the fire season is not over yet."--Mila Boyden 8th Grade
California is the state with the highest fire threat in the US and although California's been lucky this year, the fire season is not over yet. This year, there have been 5,280 wildfires causing 255,468 acres to be burned.
“In drought years we brace for a fiercer wildfire season. Now after a historically wet winter and snowpack, we are still facing fire danger but it looks different than it has the last few years,” reported an ABC news article, What Will CA's Wildfire Season Look Like? Winter storms have brought California into less severe stages of drought,therefore the 2023 fire season will be very different from previous years. Have the storms helped, or made it worse?
“Fire experts weighed in on the 2023 U.S. wildfire forecast from Accuweathermeteorologists which predict that in California, 400,000 to 1 million acres will burn. That puts the state at average or slightly above average for fire danger later in the summer,” the article continued.
The 2023 fire season in California has been better than in previous years, according to Ryan Nishimoto, the Alameda County Deputy Chief, Operations who has been working with fire departments for 22 years. “So far, the wildfire season has been better than last year,” he said. “There's been less dry lightning instances and less combinations of high temperatures with low humidity and high winds. This can all still change as September tends to have these weather combination patterns. For ACFD, our structure fire activity has increased this year. One explanation can be the increased amount of unsheltered community members looking for safe places to stay that aren't in a safe condition for living such as abandoned buildings. Another can be that the increased cost of living has led to poor upkeeping of housing elements which can lead to increased electrical fires of warming fires from fireplaces.”
After the winter storms, California's drought is less extreme which makes people assume that the fire threat has lessened. Cb Omand, an 8th grader at Oakland School for the Arts theorized that, “The winter storms last year helped California come out of a drought a little bit. Because of this, the plants should be more hydrated causing the fire season to be better than last year because the fires will have less dead plants to burn.”
While this approach may seem logical and uplifting, the reality is the opposite. The winter storms caused there to be much more vegetation and fuel for fires to burn through as it dries out. Wind also tore down trees and branches, causing fuel for fire to be much more accessible.
Deputy Chief Nishimoto said that “[The winter rains] increased wildland fire potential by assisting with the growth of vegetation fuels. The rain and water runoff also caused flooding and changed access points and roads into more rural areas subject to wildfires. This caused fire departments to physically drive roads and use GPS to update travel routes and access points.”
Peter Carpenter, a retired smoke jumper and Harvard graduate, agreed with Deputy Chief Nishimoto. “The most direct impact is that because we had a very stormy winter, we have a lot of new fuel on the ground this year… And the new fuel is primarily disturbances in areas where there have been previous fires like grasslands. And the new fuel turns out to be just like gasoline.”
The main cause for California's wildfires this year is dry lightning storms. A dry lightning storm is a thunderstorm with little to no rainfall. These storms are one of the most deadly types in California because they are the number-one cause of naturally occurring wildfires. So, if a storm has lightning but no rain, when the lightning hits the ground in an area full of fuel, there’s nothing to put the fire out.
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Dry lightning — when strikes occur with little or no rainfall — has sparked some of California’s biggest and most destructive wildfires. The August Complex of 2020, for example, burned over a million acres, registering as the state’s first-ever gigafire.”
“Dry lightning occurs when the air beneath a thunderstorm is dry, and raindrops evaporate before reaching the Earth’s surface… The result is the ignition of a fire, without rain to extinguish flames,” the article continued.
Jaden C., a volunteer firefighter at the Crockett/Carquinez fire station #78 said that, “Fire season this year is longer compared to previous years and the storm didn’t help much. We’ve had a lot of changes in weather recently, especially when it comes to storms. Because when you have lightning and no rain, those cause pretty large campaign fires… a storm would pass through lightning would hit several locations, which are normally hard to get to especially in forested areas or places with mountains. They take up a lot of resources, at some of these incidents there are hundreds, possibly thousands of fire personnel from not only California but all over the country at these fires. They're pretty expensive.”
As wildfires in California are becoming more common and drastic, California's government has been spending more and more on wildfire prevention. To date, the State has spent about $2.9 billion in the 2022‑2023 wildfire season—almost triple the amount of the budget in the 2021-2022 fire season in which they spent $988 million. Fire departments are also spending time to educate the public about fire prevention and safety. It’s much cheaper to spend money on fire prevention than on fire fighting.
“We're educating the public on how to make your property more fire resistant through interior and exterior choices of construction types and landscaping,” said Deputy Chief Nishimoto “We're also committing to fuels management which includes helping to reduce vegetation fuels in areas with high fire hazard potential.”
To protect yourself and your family from wildfire threats, make sure to have an escape plan in case of emergencies and work with neighbors to clear away anything that could be possible fuel for fire around your house and neighborhood.