Home News What to Expect From Wildfire Season in California This Year

What to Expect From Wildfire Season in California This Year

What to Expect From Wildfire Season in California This Year

Compared with recent years, the 2023 fire season in California is off to a slow start.

Roughly 22,000 acres have burned in the state so far this year, compared with an average of 120,000 acres by this point in each of the previous five years, according to CalFire, the state’s fire agency. An extraordinarily wet winter and an unusually cool spring and early summer are to thank.

But that picture is starting to shift.

Several wildfires have recently erupted in California amid a heat wave, including the Rabbit fire, which has consumed more than 8,000 acres and prompted evacuations in Riverside County last weekend. As of last night, it was 55 percent contained.

The spate of blazes suggests that some of the benefits conferred by the wet conditions this year are wearing off: As temperatures warm and the rainy season recedes further into the past, vegetation is drying out and transforming into fuel that can help fires take off.

Those risks will only increase in the coming weeks as the dry weather continues and temperatures most likely remain hotter than normal.

“We’ve had a bit of a reprieve in many places up to the present, and that may be coming to a close,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at U.C.L.A., told reporters recently.

Many officials are on edge. Though last year’s fire season wasn’t extraordinary, eight of the 10 biggest fires in California’s history have occurred since 2017. A prolonged drought and unseasonably warm temperatures made 2020 the state’s worst year for fires on record.

Joe Tyler, the chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that the rains this year most likely only delayed the height of fire season. (The season typically runs from July to October, though in recent, drought-stricken years major fires have started as early as January.)

At a news conference this month, Tyler said that 2023 could turn out to resemble 2017, which began with a wet winter before dry weather and strong winds conspired to whip up huge, fast-moving blazes in the fall. That year, wildfires in California killed 47 people and destroyed 11,000 structures.

“Wildfires are a fact in California,” Tyler said. “It’s not a question of if, but it’s matter of when that fire is going to strike.”

There’s also concern that the rains could ultimately make this year’s fire season worse. Plant growth spurred by wet weather can generate more fuel for fires, experts say.

But that’s not a universal truth. Park Williams, a hydroclimatologist at U.C.L.A., told me that in California’s mountainous forests, where there’s already dense vegetation, more growth doesn’t have much of an impact, so the rain mostly serves to keep everything moist and cool. That means there’s a low risk of big fires this year in the Sierra Nevada and North Coast mountain ranges, he said, “just because everything is so wet.”

At lower elevations, however, the extra growth can be dangerous. In California’s scrublands and grasslands — which include the Central Valley, much of coastal Southern California, the Sierra Nevada foothills and other areas — the weather typically gets hot and dry enough in the summer and fall for those new plants to turn into tinder, he said.

Typically, “the limiting factor that keeps fire small is the lack of vegetation,” Williams told me. “After a very wet winter, we’ll have more grasses than usual, and that extra grass can be very potent to allow fires to spread larger than they would otherwise.”

What are the best books about California or the part of the state where you live? What fiction or nonfiction would you put on a Golden State reading list, and why?

Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com with your suggestions. Please include your name and the city where you live.

Robert Crapsey was feeling pretty confident when he first saw Carole Coleman at an event in Miami in 2017.

He had just been on several treks through Napa Valley and learned a ton about wine, Coleman’s favorite subject. “I thought I knew everything about it,” he said.

Coleman, a wine consultant and wine columnist for The Biscayne Times, was amused. He wasn’t quite the oenophile she was, but he was cute, she thought.

“I figured we might as well become friends,” Coleman told The New York Times.

They became more than that. The two got married last month.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Geordon Wollner contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here