California’s Next Mega Fire, This Could be The Year

By | May 13, 2014

When Thomas Jeffery visits states like California, he likes to take some time out to drive around and take a hard look at the conditions and the landscape.

As a scientist, Jeffery feels this helps put first-person observations into his numerical assessments of risk so that when he studies and talks about wildfires he can do so with more authority and confidence.

But some types of confidence may not be so reassuring, and most wouldn’t want Jeffery to be confident about one bold assessment he’s now making for California’s upcoming, early and seemingly endless wildfire season.

“I really think this year could be the year,” said Jeffery, a senior hazard scientist at real estate data and analytics firm CoreLogic.

See related story: Wildfire Season Starts Early Amid Drought; Costs to Top $1 Billion

A ray of hope Jeffery tossed out was that a long-term forecast for an El Nin᷉o condition to bring more precipitation could help reduce the chance of massive wildfires – though the rains could come a bit too late to prevent what Jeffery and others fear may be shaping up to be California’s worst wildfire season since 2003.

“I think it’s probably as ready to burn as it ever will be,” Jeffery said.

Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook May 2014
The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for May shows above normal fire potential over much of
California, Alaska and parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Jeffery was similarly confident about fire dangers in California when he talked about wildfires at the start of the year, just days after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and directed state personnel to take all necessary actions to prepare for drought conditions.

By January fire officials had already grown concerned they hadn’t seen an end to the fire season, and at the time California’s three-year precipitation average, from 2011 to 2014, was as low as 30 percent of the norm in some places.

April finished off California’s official snow and rainfall season with a small burst of showers, which were at most a reminder that the mountain ranges in the Sierra Nevadas had received roughly one-third of their historic average snowfall.

In January Jeffery was giving warnings about the state’s wildfire potential and he was pointing to a CoreLogic report released in 2013 showing 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.

Jeffery has said he found it odd to be talking about wildfires in January, and he said that in May it’s still hard to get used to talking about the fire season for California – which typically starts in October with the onslaught of the gusty Santa Anna wind conditions.

“I’ve never talked about wildfire in May before,” he said.

According to the National Weather Service, an early start to the wildfire season could be in store for California and other states in the West.

“There’s no immediate concerns but with temperatures approaching 100 down in the Las Vegas I think things are priming up and drying out for the wildfire season to begin, especially in the Southwest,” said Heath Hockenberry, the weather service’s national fire weather program manager.

Hockenberry is among many experts like Jeffery who have been talking about California’s severe wildfire potential for the past few years, and each year many of those experts express concern that this could be the year the state sees wildfires on a historic scale.

Is this the year California will be hit with massive wildfires?

Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, was asked the question.

He stopped just shy of answering, but as he has in the last few years when he’s spoken to reporters, Moraga emphatically outlined the potential for a bad year for wildfires.

IINC in 2012 issued a report showing more than 2 million of the state’s 13.5 million homes are in high to severe wildfire regions. It was notably bad then, and the Western U.S. was early on in its running drought.

“In the two years since we did this study things have gotten progressively worse,” Moraga said. “It’s been two more years of extreme drought, and the winds are getting more severe. We usually see the worst fires in October. We’re getting those same conditions early in the year.”

In Southern California during the second week in May red flag warnings are in effect as officials are on watch for wildfires due to temperatures in the 100s in several spots throughout the region and strong and steady that winds pushed the heat to and fro.

The National Significant Wildand Fire Potential Outlook for May issued by the National Interagency Center shows “Above normal” fire potential over much of California, Alaska and parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

“We’re long overdue for major wildfires in this area,” Moraga said.

He said that in interviews in 2013, and before that in interviews in 2012.

Over the past two years Moraga and IINC have stepped up their efforts to encourage homeowners to take mitigation steps, such as clearing spaces around their homes, and Moraga has relayed to consumers via the media reminders about the impacts of the 2007 and 2003 wildfire seasons.

It was in 2003 when the 280,278-acre Cedar Fire in San Diego County erupted, making it the state’s largest wildfire on record. That fire was among 15 wildfires throughout Southern California in October.

“That was 11 years ago,” Moraga said. “Have the conditions gotten worse? Yeah. This could very well be the worst fire season we’ve ever seen.”

In 2003’s wildfire onslaught 4,836 structures were destroyed, including 3,641 homes, causing a reported $2.37 billion in insured losses, according to IINC. In 2007 wildfires destroyed 3,107 structures, 2,180 of those were homes, and a higher number of claims resulted in $2.3 billion in insured losses for that year, IINC reported.

More concerning than numerous wildfires may be the possibility of a “mega fire,” which Moraga fears is lurking in the “bone dry” brush waiting to be ignited and pushed into an inferno by the windy conditions that have arrived early this year in Southern California.

Jeffery acknowledged that he’s issued a dire warning for larger and more dangerous fires every year for the past few years.

“When we have drought conditions, the fuel is never in a cycle where it’s kind of healthy and vibrant and lush,” he said. “It’s really in that stress condition and it’s prime for burning.”

He added, “Now it seems like we have more times during the year where we have these gusty downdrafts occurring.”

CoreLogic updates if fire maps regularly so its insurance customers can better assess their risk. Although high risk areas remain on high risk status, an increasing number of moderate risk areas are beginning to look much riskier, Jeffery said.

Jeffery is warning its clients about these increased risks, particularly in Southern California.

“In Southern California everybody’s just waiting for what’s been predicted to happen the last couple of years, but we haven’t seen a 2003 type of year yet,” Jeffery said.

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