A winter wildfire season offers some unique challenges for firefighters like Mike Lopez.
Lopez is president of CDF Firefighters, which represents the employees of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire as it’s best known.
Lopez has been a firefighter with Cal Fire for 24 years, and he said that while a winter fire season is rare though not unheard of, it has firefighters on high alert.
The dry weather and amount of unburned fuel is particularly worrisome, he said.
“Last year at this time there were no fires basically from what I would consider the end of fire season, which is typically right around the first of November until we get into the spring mode again, which is around April-May,” Lopez said. “This year for Cal Fire there’s been 289 fires with 721 acres burned.”
But of greater concern for Lopez, whose goal is to get more firefighters hired, is that an endless fire season has meant no breaks for firefighters.
Lopez recently conducted a poll to find how much time Cal Fire firefighters were being required to put in.
One firefighter from Temecula had worked 34 days consecutive days without a day off, while there were several others who had worked periods of 21 days, or more commonly 14 days, without a day off, and many of them cited fatigue and the possibility of work injuries as their tops concerns, according to Lopez’ poll.
Lopez underlined a problem the state’s continuous fire season poses.
“Our firefighters, this time of year they haven’t had their rest because there never was an end of fire season,” he said. “It kept going all the way, and here we are at the end of January almost, and we’re still having fires.”
The problem is of course dry weather. The state has been in a drought for three consecutive years.
January’s abnormally dry and warm weather – it was 67 degrees in Los Angeles, 65 in San Diego and 66 in San Francisco at noon Thursday, a bit cooler than previous days – has gotten a great deal of notice lately.
California Gov. Jerry Brown on Jan. 16 declared a drought emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for drought conditions.
His proclamation came at the time the wildfire in Glendora was raging roughly 25 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The fire was fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds that spit embers into neighborhoods and forced evacuations, including evacuations of nearby schools.
The three-year precipitation average, from 2011 to 2014, for the San Diego area up to California’s Monterey Peninsula is about 50 percent of normal, and as low as 30 percent of the norm in some places, according to the National Weather Service.
Overall for January, California is at roughly 25 percent of normal rainfall for the month, according to NWS.
The weather service has been driving home the point that although this is unusual weather for January, it’s not unheard of, and that the current problem is simply a high pressure ridge over the area.
“It’s a big blocking pattern,” said Heath Hockenberry, national fire weather program manager for NWS.
The pattern is taking storm tracks down the northern side of Rockies and pushing them into the Central U.S. and East Coast, where winter has been consistently in full force.
Hockenberry, who called it a “non-typical weather pattern,” said that every once in a while the Western U.S. gets a dry winter, but this dry winter has been compounded by three years in a row of below normal precipitation.
“It’s a long-term drought,” he said.
To get out of the current dry weather pattern it will take a powerful push from a low-pressure system from the Pacific to get things moving again, Hockenberry said.
But don’t hold out hope for relief soon. The NWS models forecast two weeks out with a high degree of confidence and detail, and those models show dry and warm weather from as far east as West Texas to as far west as the San Francisco Bay area.
“The next two weeks look pretty bleak,” Hockenberry said.
Longer-range models extending out through February show below normal signs of precipitation, while forecasting models that look even further out but are less reliable – the three-month probability through March-April-May – show chances of a decent amount of precipitation that are “still not great,” Hockenberry said.
“The overall outlook does not lend itself to breaking up this pattern in any way, shape or form,” he added.
The extended dry period and greater risk of wildfires should have insurance professionals taking another look at the risks on their books, said Thomas Jeffery, senior hazard scientist with data and analytics company CoreLogic Inc.
Wildfire prone areas that were recently considered to be at “moderate risk” may be entering a higher risk category, according to Jeffery.
“What did you consider to be a high risk area before?” said Jeffery. “You may want to look at that area again and review and say those that were moderate risk could potentially have a higher fire risk than we thought. The ones in the middle have the potential to move up into a higher risk category.”
And for those homes already in high risk areas?
“Those areas are going to be at considerable high risk now,” Jeffery said.
Last year CoreLogic issued a report that showed the number of homes at risk from wildfires in Western U.S. states jumped 62 percent in the past year as more properties were developed in fire-prone areas.
The report took a focus on 13 states in the drought-plagued area and broke down the risks into regions, categories and dollar signs.
According to that report, there are more than 1.2 million residential properties in the Western U.S. that are currently located in “High” or “Very High” wildfire-risk categories valued at more than $189 billion – in the “Very High” risk category alone there are roughly 268,000 residences valued at more than $41 billion.
The report called out drought and continued new home construction in the wildland-urban interface for putting at risk billions of dollars’ worth of properties.
Development interests in that interface, or WUI, have been led by example California, and now those development patterns are being followed by other states like Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, according to Cal Fire’s Lopez.
“What California’s been facing for the last 30-40 years and continually progressing is happening now in those states where they’re starting to allow real estate development to happen in the WUI,” he said. “In California, it’s continually happening where every year there are people who like to get out to the city, who like to get out of the urban area, and move into areas where it’s more rural.”
Those higher wildfire risk areas are forcing firefighters to increasingly battle wildfires that encompass neighborhoods, putting in play not just firefighting efforts that include containing fires, but saving lives, with planning and resources needed for evacuation and safety considerations, Lopez said.
Lopez expressed concern about the amount of unburned fuel on the ground near and around such areas.
The potential for fallen trees, dead or dying brush and dried out grass to burn grows as the state continues to go longer without slaking nature’s thirst.
Jeffery’s concern is the increased ignition potential of ground-level fuel and grass, and that those fires can more easily move into the brush and tree level.
Summer fires tend to remove some of that some of that ground-level fuel, but last year was a relatively quiet summer fire season, which means there was a decent amount of fuel left over from the fire season, he said.
“The longer this goes, this is going to have the potential to build into a large, uncontrollable fire,” he said.
One fire of note last summer was the Rim fire in the central Sierra Nevada region, where drought was blamed as a big contributor for the massive wildfire that consumed 257,314 acres.
At the time of the fire, Jeffery noted, some fire experts worried aloud that fires like the Rim fire could become the new norm if the drought were to continue.
Such a prospect makes one wish for the old norm, where more but smaller fires were common, Jeffery said.
“You just hope that the normal regime of fires occurs,” he said.