In California, the term “fire season” is tossed around with a certain amount of vagueness, mainly because unlike, say “deer season,” there are no hard and fast rules for when it begins and ends. But like, for instance, “Holiday Season,” it does seem to be getting longer and more tedious.
For budgeting purposes, CalFire reckons it to be May 15 to November 15. As a practical matter, we don’t really expect the first wildfire to break out on May 15–except this year it did. The Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains flamed up about a month before people really expect to start seeing smoke in the air. It was the start of what could be a record-breaking season.
Last year’s fire season was the worst in a decade; 1.5 million acres burned. This year we’re on track to surpass that. Climatologists say: Get used to it. According to a 2005 report from the California Climate Change Center, using warming scenarios from the IPCC:
If average statewide temperatures rise to the medium warming range (5.5 to 8°F), the risk of large wildfires in California is expected to increase about 20 percent by mid-century and 50 percent by the end of the century. This is almost twice the wildfire increase expected if temperatures are kept within the lower warming range.
Along with temperature, wildfires are determined by a variety of factors, including precipitation. Because of this, future wildfire risk throughout the state will not be
uniform. For example, a hotter, drier climate could increase the flammability of vegetation in northern California and promote up to a 90 percent increase in large wildfires by the end of the century. A hotter, wetter climate would also lead to an increase in wildfires in northern California, but to a lesser extent—about a 40 percent increase by century’s end.
Phyllis Banducci, an El Dorado County forester for CalFire, says that normally they would start “ramping down” (laying off seasonal firefighters and so forth) in the north state around mid-October but this year CalFire has delayed winding things down until November 3rd.
Recently I took a walking tour through some Sierra burn sites with Crawford Tuttle, Chief Deputy Director at CalFire. You can hear excerpts from that and comments on the climate connection from UC Merced researcher Tony Westerling on The California Report, starting Friday morning.
You can watch a video of that walk by clicking on the viewer below. The first location is Sierra Springs. The second walk was on Icehouse Ridge, above Highway 50. Both locations are in El Dorado County.
We’ve also set up a spot where you can share your own fire photos and experiences.