California is so hot and dry that not even soaking rain can ease fall fire peril
As the drought-ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties prepare for an intense, three-day series of wildfires, the state of California is experiencing its wettest autumn on record. And while it’s true that rain is the single most effective tool in fighting wildfires in the dry, California fire-wise, it’s a tool that could be very costly in the long term.
“The cost of fighting wildfires in a dry, fire-prone state is always a big concern,” said Chris Pote, research fire science officer with the US Forest Service’s Northern spotted owl project.
“When you try to pull stuff out of the ground, the soil has to dry out and dry out quickly so that it doesn’t retain moisture and start to smolder. And then the ground has to dry out again,” he added.
To combat the conditions that allow wildfires to spread more easily, firefighters have to be able to get to the forest floor quickly and extinguish the fire. When you consider the dry conditions, that’s a tall order indeed.
That leaves, first and foremost, rain as the only tool in the toolbox.
“I mean, how many wildfires are you going to get a year?” asked Matt Linscheid, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2011, there were about 20,000 wildfires in California, according to state figures. The number is likely to rise as conditions are already getting more severe, according to the US Forest Service.
“It’s just the nature of California and California fires,” said Mike Bettes, assistant professor at California State University, Sacramento. “This drought will continue for a long time.”
“It’s a great place for fires,” added Pote. “They’re kind of a natural experiment.”
There are only four other regions in the country that routinely experience wildfires of this size, according to US Forest Service figures. Those