Environment & Science

Muggy summer weather, 4-year-drought makes for unpredictable fire season

The Rocky Fire in Lake County continues to grow.
The Rocky Fire in Lake County continues to grow.
Cal Fire Pio Berlant/Twitter

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A spate of deadly wildfires has charred tens of thousands of acres in Central and Northern California and killed one firefighter. Despite the dry conditions brought on by the drought, similar fires are not necessarily likely to occur in Southern California.

“California is a really big state, and what’s going on in the Northern part of the state is not really an indicator of what will happen down here, and that’s particularly true of fires,” said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Keeley said rains that fell in Southern California during July have added moisture to potential fuel sources.

“Up until July, it looked like we were headed for one of our worst years. Then, all this rain in July now changes the situation, and I would guess that it means the risk is a lot less right now,” Keeley said.

He said the combination of recent precipitation and a historical drought makes it difficult to know how fires will behave in the region.

“This is probably one of the most complicated years that we’ve had weather-wise, in terms of making predictions about fires,” Keeley said.

Further complicating predictions is that the peak fire season for Southern California typically occurs in the fall. Keeley said current moisture levels could drop by then.

An official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) took a different view from Keeley, saying risks of wildfire in Southern California remain high.

“We do have the high fire risk, because a lot of vegetation that we have down here is highly flammable, like the chamise and the red shank that we do have and that’s native to Southern California. And that’s very explosive when it catches on fire,” said Richard Cordova, a fire captain with Cal Fire.

“The potential’s always here in Southern California, but it’s even higher now because of the four-year drought. So we have the potential to have extreme fire conditions like those seen up north,” Cordova said.

Cordova said his agency has not identified any specific regions of threat but stands ready to respond wherever fires occur. 

David Dantic, a fire inspector with the Los Angeles County Fire Department said on Monday that current risk of wildfire was moderate and that no red flag was in effect.