Environment & Science

How El Niño may have amped up fire risk in So Cal

Ventura County Fire Department crews respond to the Casitas Fire on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Ventura County Fire Department crews respond to the Casitas Fire on Thursday, April 28, 2016.
Ventura County Fire Department

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Southern California's winter rains were few and far between, but researchers think there was just enough moisture to spur the growth of easily ignited grasses -- raising the specter of an active fire season.

UC Irvine fire researcher James Randerson said statistical analysis of Southern California’s past shows the more rain it gets, the more these annual grasses sprout.

"So that becomes a greater fuel load," he explained.

That could be especially problematic in areas like highway shoulders where the backfire of a car or tossed lit cigarettes can potentially start a fire that carries to nearby chaparral.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Randerson's research predicts that fire risk in Southern California could jump as much as 30 percent by 2050 due to hotter summers caused by climate change.

It's estimated that over the same period fire damage will more than triple, reaching nearly half a billion dollars annually, according to research from George Washington University. 

The short term picture isn't as bleak up north, where El Niño delivered more rain, but drought conditions persist for most of the state.

Firefighters are already bracing for above normal fire potential throughout Southern California, said CAL FIRE director Chief Ken Pimlott.

That's because after four years of drought millions of trees have died and others are severely dehydrated, creating easy fuel for a wildfire.

"It will take several seasons of El Niño-like rainfall to really turn around the status of the vegetation to be more normal," Pimlott told Take Two's Alex Cohen.

He added that CAL FIRE is already marshaling resources to prepare for the summer fire season.