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Climate and Environment

Now That The Rain's Over, When’s Fire Going To Show Up?

Fire burning through dried leaves in the middle of a forest.
Prescribed fire being set during a prescribed fire training exchange in February 2022.
(Jacob Margolis
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In recent years, state agencies have made it a point to say that we’ve got to be prepared for a year-round fire season. It's a sentiment that makes some sense during drought periods, especially given the hot temperatures we see now, even during the winter.

This year though, we can confidently say that things are so wet it’ll be a bit before California’s fire season shows up.

“It’s hard to call when the start date is going to be,” said Robert Carvalho, battalion chief with Cal Fire.

Key factors for fire season

The burnability of our landscapes is dependent on how dry they are. And depending on where you live in the state and the kind of vegetation you’re surrounded by, that critical level of dryness is going to come along at different times.

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For instance, spindly grasses in the foothills around Los Angeles are going to desiccate faster than snowed in parts of the Sierra.

“For our forested areas in Sequoia-Kings Canyon we expect snow to be in place through mid-June at even the lower end of the mixed conifer, so the date when those areas might carry fire should be significantly delayed,” said Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Timeline for things drying out

How fast things dry out will depend on how hot the ensuing months are.

Much of California typically dries out by August or September, just in time for strong winds to come along, especially here in the south. That’s the window we’re likely to see more sizable conflagrations and red-flag conditions. All of which is normal for our Mediterranean climate.

“You look outside. Does it feel dry? Does it look dry? The potential for fire season is coming around shortly,” said Carvahlo.

Why we need planned burns

We’ve got some crucial windows where specialized fire practitioners can do prescribed and cultural burns.

Putting fire back on the ground is a critical part of the state’s fire plan going forward.

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Why? Because fires are needed to help rebuild healthy landscapes and make them more resilient to catastrophic flames.

This year’s heavy rains and snow have shifted some of those burn windows, so practitioners like Don Hankins — a member of the Plains Miwok as well as California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force — is checking in with the land around him daily, as the snow continues to melt.

“It’s kind of a tricky thing because it depends on the ecosystems,” said Hankins, who lives in the northeastern part of the state.

One hot day could dry out a whole mess of pine needles on his property, which he can then clear out with fire. But there are a lot of considerations to be made.

“Even though I need to do a lot of burning where I’m at, a lot of songbirds are starting to come in. And that’s one of the indicators that I use. Well, do I burn now, do I not burn? Because I don’t want to impact them,” said Hankins.

“It’s kind of day to day,” he added.

Carvahlo, the Cal Fire battalion chief, also said that the agency has been delayed on prescribed burns this year as a result of the weather.

And if you want to learn more about fires, check out our podcast The Big Burn.

Listen to the episode on prescribed burns

The Big Burn: Setting A Forest On Fire

What do you want to know about fires, earthquakes, climate change or any science-related topics?
Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.

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