In a report that makes last spring’s end to the drought seem like a distant memory, fire officials say anything that could fuel a devastating brush fire in Southern California is quickly drying out and that residents should have their evacuation plans in place.
“This has already been a busy fire season, and it has the potential to continue to be a busy fire season into November,” said Tom Rolinski, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “The big wild card is, how much Santa Ana winds are we going to get before we get any meaningful rainfall?”
Those winds, which blow west from the desert, can sap any remaining moisture from vegetation and push flames faster than firefighters can move. They typically start to show up in September and are most active from October through February.
Forecasters including Rolinski in the multi-agency Geographic Area Coordination Center issued their latest three-month seasonal outlook on Tuesday, Aug. 1.
“This fall may be one of the more active and dangerous seasons in years due to the high amount of fuel loading from last winter’s rains and the remnant stands of dead vegetation,” the report concludes.
There’s a bumper crop of grasses this year because of the rains that ended the drought, and the grass is expected to reach “critical dryness” by the end of August, the report said.
The hot weather that cooked Southern California in June continued through most of July, with temperatures 4-6 degrees above normal. And there was less monsoonal moisture than usual in July. That hot, dry weather has caused both “fine” and “heavy” fuels to dry to near-record low levels.
“The heavier fuels are at the point where they are going to support heavier fire,” Rolinski said. “That’s why we are getting more fire activity.”
Through July 30 this year, Cal Fire has responded to about 30 percent more fires that have burned about 50 percent more acres than at this time last year. But that heightened activity does not necessarily mean there will be more fires through the rest of the year, Rolinski said
If residents haven’t already done so, it’s time to get evacuation plans in order, Rolinski said. Fire officials recommend visiting ReadyForWildfire.org for tips. A defensible space around a home — an area cleared of vegetation that could catch fire — should already be in place.
“It’s almost a little too late to start doing brush clearance. It’s going to be very receptive to fire, and you don’t want to do anything that can cause a spark,” Rolinski said. “Sparks from a lawnmower or weed whacker — grasses are going to be very receptive to ignition.”
Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department said “equipment use” touched off the Rose fire Monday near Lake Elsinore. A resident said a friend was mowing brush to fortify a defensible space when the fire started.
Tuesday’s report also issued a warning for firefighters:
“Proper use of safety protocol will be critical when engaged with the hostile fuel and weather conditions expected the next several months,” forecasters cautioned.
Fire weather highlights
- Above-normal temperatures through the summer and fall.
- Near- to slightly below-normal summer monsoonal thunderstorm activity.
- Large fire (300 acres+) potential will be well above normal across most areas outside the desert and irrigated areas into the fall.
- Live fuels becoming critically dry over Southern California by early to mid-August and in September across Central California.
Source: National Interagency Fire Center outlook, August-November
Brush fires responded to by Cal Fire
For the period of Jan. 1 to July 30.
- 2017: 3,736 fires that burned 206,062 acres
- 2016: 2,860 fires that burned 139,014 acres
- Five-year average: 3,024 fires that burned 83,931 acres
Source: Cal Fire