California’s first fires could be a sign of worse to come, officials say

A recent surge in fires in California, punctuated by a large blaze that broke out Saturday outside San Francisco, has officials wondering whether this year’s fire season could be worse than expected. Predictions are complicated, however, by a combination of competing factors that increase and decrease fire risk.

With lots of thick grass for fuel, fire season is starting much quicker than last year. Several fires are ravaging the state and a looming heat wave in the West could further increase the risk of wildfires. Experts, however, say the latter part of the fire season, which typically runs from April to October, is the worst.

The fire that broke out over the weekend, called the Corral Fire, was reported to be 90% contained as of Tuesday morning after burning more than 14,000 acres in San Joaquin County, just south of Tracy, California. The cause of the fire, located about 60 miles east of San Francisco, remains under investigation.

California’s fire season has become more active over the past two weeks as the hot, dry weather that set in in May dried out thick grasses that had sprouted during the previous two wet winters. Once a fire starts, gusts of wind can quickly spread flames to dry grass.

Cal Fire listed eight active fires as of Tuesday morning. Although much of the activity is concentrated in the central and southern part of the state, the Corral Fire in Northern California is by far the largest fire in the state this year. Driven by gusts of wind, the fire burned a house, injured two firefighters and forced thousands of people to evacuate, the Associated Press reported.

Wildfires have now burned more than 34,000 acres in the state this year, well beyond the 8,500 acres that usually burned in early June and the 2,500 acres that burned at the same time last year.

For the moment, the risk of fire is mainly limited to meadows in the event of strong winds. How flammable the rest of the state is depends on heat and humidity trends this summer. A heat wave expected across much of the state late this week and into the weekend, which is expected to send temperatures in central California soaring to near 100 degrees and above, will drop further increases the snow cover and dries out the vegetation.

There are mixed signals on how this year’s wildfire season will play out.

In early May, forecasters predicted a decrease in fire risk in early summer after California received a lot of rain and snow during the winter and spring, although forecasts of a hot summer and d A delayed or weak southwest monsoon was already causing concern. for later in the season.

Although unexpected, the recent surge in fires has not necessarily changed the forecast, as forecasters still have to balance competing factors.

On the one hand, drought, which increases the risk of fires, is not currently a major concern after a second consecutive stormy winter. Although recent warmth has reduced the state’s snowpack to 44 percent below normal, reservoir levels remain 18 percent above normal after slightly above average precipitation for the year nowadays.

“I don’t expect a drought at least for the next few months,” said Brent Wachter, a fire meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

On the other hand, abundant vegetation could provide plenty of fuel for fires, as the Corral Fire and others have already shown, especially if combined with dry, hot weather. The weather service’s forecast for June, July and August favors above-normal temperatures across the state.

“We have a lot of extra fuel with two wet years in a row, so August could become active, especially if we have a warmer-than-normal July,” said Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Francisco. Diego. “We also expect less monsoon activity in the West, therefore combined with repeated heatwaves… The months of August to October could be quite active. »

There is, however, a lot of uncertainty in the forecast, with the ongoing fires perhaps throwing a new curveball for forecasters.

“One way to think about early-season grass fires is that the burned area represents one less patch of land that can potentially burn later in the fire season, when conditions are much drier and crews firefighters are less available”, Daniel Swain, climatologist at UCLA, said the.

Diana Leonard contributed to this report.

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