What Winter’s Dry Spell Means for California’s Fire Season

When rain pummeled California in October, many breathed a sigh of relief: At least in some parts of the state, the worst of the fire season, experts said, was most likely over.

The following month, however, precipitation was scarce. In December, it rained again, smashing records. Now, some parts of the state have barely seen another drop of water since early January.

“It has been both an unusually dry and an unusually wet winter,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Nature Conservancy.

But what do these ups and downs mean for California’s next fire season? The answer is complicated.

Before October, a vast majority of California was considered to be in “exceptional” or “extreme” drought (the highest rankings, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor). So when meteorological conditions known as “atmospheric rivers” drenched parts of the state in October and December, much of that water was sucked up by the parched landscape.

The hot and windy conditions that followed also led the rain to evaporate quickly, drying out the vegetation that fuels fires. California’s rising snowpack, which provides moisture to the ecosystem as it melts in the spring, has since plummeted.

Historically, California’s fire season lasted a few months during the hottest part of the year. But recently it has become more year-round.

In January, typically one of California’s wettest months, a wildfire swept through Big Sur, a mountainous coastal region south of San Francisco, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate. The scene was “pretty surreal” given California’s wet October and December, the National Weather Service said on Twitter at the time.

But though the extreme rainfall and dryness might average out to near-normal levels of precipitation, that’s no insurance policy against fire, scientists say. As global temperatures warm, even in wet years, hot weather can ultimately dry out vegetation to produce droughtlike conditions.

“We still get dry years and wet years but we don’t really get cold years anymore,” Swain said. He added, “No matter what, everything still dries out.”

For now, the dry spell has a small silver lining.

The lack of rain gives fire authorities more opportunity to conduct prescribed burns that help to reduce the worst impacts of fires during the summer. And fires that ignite spontaneously during these colder months are also likely to be less intense, and can help to avert worse fires in hot, dry conditions.

But without rain in the coming days or weeks, the state could begin relapsing further into drought. Last year, historically low rainfall and ongoing drought helped cause a brutal fire season that lasted several months and burned 2.6 million acres.

“I don’t think March is going to somehow bail us out,” Swain said of the likelihood that generous rain in the coming weeks would help stave off intense fires this year.

“We’re seeing bad fire years almost every year,” he added.

For more:

Livia Albeck-Ripka is a reporter for The New York Times, based in California.

The rest of the news

  • Sacramento shooting: A man believed to be meeting his three children for a supervised visit at a church just outside Sacramento on Monday afternoon fatally shot the children and an adult accompanying them.

  • Medicaid expansion: California is making it easier for older residents to qualify for health coverage through Medicaid.

  • Russian divestment: State lawmakers plan to file legislation to get rid of California’s Russian investments, The Associated Press reports.

  • Obituary: Richard Blum, former chairman of the University of California Board of Regents and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, died on Sunday after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.

  • State pension: CalPERS is adding the largest cost-of-living increases to retirees’ pensions in more than 30 years because of high inflation, The Sacramento Bee reports.

  • Victim compensation: A decline in payments to crime survivors by California’s victim compensation board has raised questions about gaps in the program, The Guardian reports.


  • Oil company sues: An oil company based in Houston sued those they say failed to prevent an underwater pipeline leak off the coast of Orange County, The Associated Press reports.


  • Rare daisy against a gold mine: The Inyo rock daisy, which grows only in the crevices of cliffs in the southern Inyo Mountains, may be threatened by a gold mining operation, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Chesa Boudin: The New York Times Magazine spoke with Attorney General Chesa Boudin of San Francisco, who is facing a recall election. Read the interview.

  • Mask mandate upheld: San Francisco will keep its school mask mandate in place despite the state’s decision to lift the rule, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Oakland parklets: The Oakland City Council will vote today on whether to extend a program that has allowed for outdoor parklets and sidewalk cafes, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Oakland school closures: Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would not interfere with Oakland Unified’s decision to close 11 schools, KQED reports.

What you get

$1.5 million homes in California.

What we’re eating

Thai curry with silken tofu and herbs.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s travel tip comes from Jim Palmer, who recommends Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles:

“Not just the 1930s sci-fi exterior, but much of the old stuff such as the Tesla coil, which has delighted kids forever with its lightning bolts at the touch of a button. I’m 85 and can still remember a day trip to the planetarium when I was in high school in Long Beach. As a budding engineer, it was and is my favorite place anywhere.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

And before you go, some good news

During their wedding in Oakland last year, Abram Jackson and Julius Crowe Hampton jumped the broom.

The tradition was popularized among Black couples before the Civil War when enslaved Africans generally had no legal right to marry. It has since come to signify sweeping away the old and welcoming the new, The Times reported recently.

For his recent wedding, Hampton purchased a cinnamon broom at Trader Joe’s and adorned it with fabric in mustard and sage, plus sprigs of dried lavender and eucalyptus.

“Jumping the broom was the most transcendental experience of my life,” Hampton, 34, an elementary schoolteacher, said. “I felt as if I was lifted by the ancestors as we took this grand leap of faith witnessed by our friends, family and community.”

“To jump the broom as two queer Black men in love,” he added, was an experience “we will cherish for eternity.”


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