The Troubling Downside of Those Much-Needed California Rains

Atmospheric rivers eased the drought, but could herald a vicious 2023 fire season.

Resident Murdock Carson helps a neighbor remove their appliances at the Driftwood Mobile Home Park, as the Tuolumne River overflows.Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Deep underneath the sodden soils and the berms of snow that now coat California, fuels for fire are waiting to sprout. Grasses and other quick-growing vegetation, spurred by the downpours that saturated the state at the start of the year, quickly turn to kindling as the weather warms.

“When that rain comes—and it came last month—that results in significant fuel load increases,” said Isaac Sanchez, a CalFire battalion chief. “[Plants] are going to grow, they are going to die, and then they are going to become flammable fuel as the year grinds on.”

While experts say it’s still too early to predict what’s in store for the months ahead and if weather conditions will align to help infernos ignite, it’s clear the rains that hammered California this winter came as a mixed blessing, delivering badly needed relief while posing new risks. Along with seeding the tinder of tomorrow, the inclement weather hampered efforts to perform essential landscape treatments needed to mitigate the risks of catastrophic fire. “That is now the reality of the environment in the state that we live in,” Sanchez, added. “We are constantly facing a double-edged sword.”

Reservoirs are more robust than they have been in years. The snowpack, which will slowly release moisture into thirsty landscapes through the spring and summer, is 134 percent of its average for April, giving the state an important head start. The rains also bumped California out of the most extreme categories of drought, according to the latest analysis from the US Drought Monitor.

But the storms also left behind a dangerous mess. Strong winds ripped trees from their roots and tore down branches, littering ignition opportunities throughout high-risk areas. Through the slopes and mountainsides, saturated earth crumbled, chewing gaps through roads and highways and hindering access. If these issues linger into the summer and autumn months, they could augment fire dangers.

“Those big rains effectively shut down our ability to broadcast burning across the landscape,” said Scott Witt, deputy chief of pre-fire planning at CalFire, a division that focuses on mitigation. Adding controlled fire to landscapes is a proven strategy that both creates healthier, more resilient forests and also reduces fuels that can escalate fire severity, but conditions have to be right before they are set.

Landscapes that are too wet won’t burn and high moisture levels can also increase smoke output during a burn, putting the plan at odds with air quality control. Stormy conditions—especially wind—can make them too hard to control.

Other types of treatments, including those that use machines to clear vegetation from overgrown landscapes, were less affected but the storms caused issues with access, Witt said. “We have had areas that have been damaged to the point where roads were washed out, so roadwork needs to be done prior to us bringing resources in,” he said. “The heavy rains do have the potential of limiting or adjusting where we do our treatments.”

Data from the agency, published on Friday, shows the number of treatments conducted by the state and its affiliates in December and January is roughly 50 percent lower than it was the year prior.

There may still be time to amp up the work if conditions are favorable through the spring, and the state was able to do more work than expected during a dry fall. But there is a lot of ground to cover and the state is already playing catch-up after more than a century of fire suppression left forests overgrown and primed to burn.

Now, the climate crisis turned up the dial. Spiking temperatures now pull more moisture out of plants, landscapes and the atmosphere, setting the stage for once-healthy ignitions to turn into infernos. The sisyphean task of treating and retreating the lands is a daunting one, especially now that there’s even more fuel on the ground after the storms—and time is running short.

It takes just days for smaller plants to dry after the rain stops, Witt said, “and dead grasses will start to dry out within an hour or two.” It’s not yet clear whether California will get much more of a dousing before spring. The heavy snowpack could help delay the onset of risks but “if we continue to stay in a dry pattern—even though we had a really strong beginning of winter,” Witt said, “we could easily have an early fire season.”

Noting the urgency, Adrienne Freeman, a spokesperson with the United States Forest Service who is based in California, said the outlook was not as grim as it might appear. There was still a lot that could happen before the onset of high-risk weather.

The cold, rainy conditions also helped forests recover from the drought, which will make them more burn-resistant. Water tables are looking far better and bug species that wreak havoc on vulnerable trees are being better kept at bay. “There is a lot of good news ecologically and we can’t separate that,” she said, noting that the boost may not go as far as it might have in a world without climate change.

“And as far as getting the work done, we just have to remember it is a long-term process,” she added, emphasizing that the effects of landscape treatments must be measured across decades, not years. “It took 150 years to happen, and it is not going to be fixed in a season.”

Acknowledging that the storms affected the agency’s ability to conduct landscape treatments this winter, she said there’s still a lot of work being done. “It doesn’t really have any bearing on what we will be able to do in the spring or how fire season will look in the summer and fall,” she said. “It is way too early for us to anticipate how this is going to affect fire season.”

What will have greater bearing on fire risks this year is the conditions that align come summer and fall—and those are harder to predict. “There’s a lot left to luck,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, echoing Freeman. Last year, when risks were high and the winter was dry, timing fell in California’s favor. Fewer catastrophic fires erupted and, while there were high-severity burns that were deadly and destructive, the acreage scorched by the end of the year was only a fraction of what it was in years past.

This year the conditions are very different. Going into spring with more snow, and wetter soils, different kinds of risks remain. “It speaks to our need to continually think about fire,” Quinn-Davidson said. While the weather will do what it will, more can be done to prepare for the worst. That includes building on the growing momentum to perform more prescribed burns and other treatments, to champion fire-ready communities, and listen to and learn from Indigenous leaders who performed cultural burns for centuries before white colonizers disrupted essential and natural cycles on the lands.

With harder-to-predict weather patterns, agencies and organizations charged with this work will have to be nimble. “We really need to be ready when the windows present themselves to take advantage of them,” she said, adding that this is where community-based fire management groups—which are sprouting up all over the state—shine.

That’s what gives her hope. Even if some conditions can be left up to chance, there is a lot that can be done. “We have a lot of power and ownership,” she said, noting that landscapes are shaped by people. It will be up to people and communities to ensure the tools are in place to prevent the worst kinds of fires from erupting “We just have to have our hearts in the right place.”

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