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All That Rain Is Growing New Fuel For Future Wildfires

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There are a lot of reasons to give thanks to Southern California's rainy season:

But then there's the not-so-silver lining: we may be primed to burn.
For now, things look good, said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center. With moisture levels still high, there's not a huge risk of fires igniting and growing out of control.

But the rains will inevitably end.

"That risk," she said, "is going to increase when all these grasses and fuels dry out and become ready to burn."

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Four of the five structures on Ojai resident Karin Dron's property were destroyed in the Thomas Fire. (Courtesy of Karin Dron)

The last time we had similar conditions was in the spring of 2017.

"I don't remember it being quite as lush as this year with either the flowers or the vegetation, but it was plenty green and it was just so nice to see things starting to recover," said Ojai resident Karin Dron, sitting on the porch of her stone house.

Surrounded by bright green grass on all sides, there is little evidence -- besides a few blackened trees -- that one of the worst fires in state history tore through her yard just a few years ago.

Dron's stone house, built in the 1930s, is now surrounded by greenery again after the Thomas Fire. (Photo by Jacob Margolis)


"Extra precipitation in winter 2016 to 2017 helped to grow a bunch of new fuel," said Park Williams, bio-climatologist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

"On top of there being a whole bunch of new growth ... the summer of 2017 was record-breaking, or near-record-breaking, across essentially all of the western United States, in terms of temperature."

Which meant that abundance of new growth dried out quickly and, because of a delayed rainy season, stayed dry.

Grasses were the first to lose their moisture, followed by shrubs and old growth chapparal that had gone unburned for a long time and survived years of low precipitation during the drought.

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That created ideal conditions for a big fire.

The Thomas Fire was sparked by SoCal Edison's power lines and then fueled by Santa Ana winds (which peak in fall and winter).

A wet winter 2017 provided fuel for fires that fall

Karin Dron watched as it consumed nearly her entire property, sparing only the home that had been there since the 1930s.

"There were a lineup of ten firetrucks on my driveway, which is about a quarter of a mile, and they were watching it burn," she said.

More than 281 thousand acres burned and 10,000 structures were destroyed.

Ojai resident Karin Dron watched as the Thomas Fire tore through her property in 2017. ((Courtesy of Karin Dron))


On a recent trip into the San Gabriel Mountains, patrol captain Alberto Ortega took samples of shrubs to measure moisture levels, something that he now has to do year-round.

For now, they are moist.

But it won't last. Plants are going to dry. How quickly that happens depends on how hot things get this spring and summer. And how long they stay dry depends on when our rainy season shows up.

"This is going to help us, basically at least at the beginning of the year," Ortega said, explaining that higher moisture levels make it easier to extinguish fires when they start.

Alberto Ortega of the U.S. Forrest Service takes fuel moisture samples in the San Gabriel Mountains. (Photo by Jacob Margolis)

Cutting moisture samples (Photo by Jacob Margolis)

"Our fire season started extending longer and longer," he said. "And we needed that fuel moisture sample for us to fight fire. You probably can see in the last 10-15 years, things are changing with the plants."

Southern California's hillsides exploded into green after this winter's rains


As climate change progresses, temperatures will continue to rise, meaning greater rates of evapotranspiration that will cause plants to dry out faster.

"I think maybe the entire stretch from 2012 to 2017 could be seen as a harbinger," said Williams, who's written extensively about climate change on the west coast.

We could also see an increased variability in rainfall, meaning that rain could come in short intense bursts followed by long periods of dryness. That matters because when we miss out on deep sustained soakings during our wet season, recovery from dry periods is more difficult.

Another concern: indications that that the rainy season could keep showing up late.

It's unclear how the Santa Ana winds will be impacted, though they're not expected to worsen.

"Warming has been so extreme in California over the last century that every summer is hot and dry enough to support fire, no matter how wet this past winter was," said Williams.

California has had a major wildfire every year for the past seven years, and the past five summers have been the warmest on record.

Ojai resident Karin Dron's property was destroyed by the Thomas Fire in 2017. ((Courtesy of Karin Dron))



Regardless of what happens, Dron always has fire in the back of her mind.

She lost four buildings on her Ojai property during the Thomas Fire.

We are on her porch, overlooking the Ojai valley below. There is no sign of a burned-out moonscape. Thanks to the rain, we are surrounded instead, by tall, beautiful, green grasses.

"It is gorgeous and we're loving this spring. It's certainly a super bloom and the wildflowers are great," she said. "But yes, we're probably going to have to do multiple fire clearances and we're going to have to keep doing it ... and it's a little worrisome. That's all I can say. We really don't know what's coming."

This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m..

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.