It’s been a long, dry winter for California, with record-low snowpack and ideal wildfire conditions to show for it. At the beginning of the month, during the time when snowpack usually peaks, the state snow survey showed it to be at 32 percent of average, one of the lowest years on record. In some areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains — where snowpack provides crucial water supply over the summer — nearly half the snowpack has melted in just the past week due to soaring temperatures according to reporting done by Andrew Freedman at Mashable.
And with the latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook released on Thursday showing the drought persisting or intensifying throughout the state until August, precipitation figures will continue to trend negatively. One area where figures will grow is wildfires, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is already warning that it will be a long and challenging fire season. And its not like its been easy so far — between January 1 and April 5, Cal Fire responded to approximately 900 wildfires, around triple the average for that period.
With that in mind, Cal Fire hired nearly 100 additional seasonal firefighters to be stationed in the north and middle part of the state starting this week.
“Over the last several months we have seen an unseasonable number of wildfires across Northern California,” Chief Doug Wenham, Cal Fire northern region chief, said in a statement last week. “Our weather forecast continues to show an increased potential in Northern California for large wildfires.”
This is all part of a long-term trend in the state as the region becomes more arid as climate change models have predicted.
“Over half of the state’s largest wildfires have occurred in just the past decade,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “We are seeing longer summers and hotter summers. And so this year with the drought, stressed vegetation, with the grass and brush being drier than it ever has been, the likelihood of large and damaging wildfires is even higher.”
While California is a leader in efforts to mitigate climate change, and has a nascent cap-and-trade program as well as a goal of achieving one-third renewable energy by the end of the decade, a new study shows there are many ways to improve forest fire mitigation in the state as well.
Conducted by scientists at the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service, the study found that forest management can substantially reduce costs associated with fighting and cleaning up fires as well as reducing their size and intensity by over half. It says this can be achieved in two steps. First, by thinning undergrowth to prevent fire from being carried into the canopy, and second, using prescribed burns to clear the underbrush.
“By having frequent low-severity fires the underbrush and small trees cleared out, and the risk of these kinds of destructive megafires was much lower,” David Edelson, the Sierra Nevada Project Director at the Nature Conservancy and a primary author on the report, told KQED Science about the history of the state. “Currently, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. When there’s a huge fire, we take the money away from the pots that are used to reduce wildfire risk. We are in a negative feedback loop, and we’ve gotta stop doing that.”
A combination of inadequate budgets and a century of fire suppression has left forests teeming with tinder, according to the study. Some forests have as much as ten times the number of trees they had historically. But as the mindset of the forest service changes from suppression to mitigation, this could change.
“We’re carrying these forests that are incredibly vulnerable forward into climate change,” Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at University of California, Berkeley, told KQED Science. “It’s a disaster really.”
In his 2015 budget, President Obama calls for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. It is designed to avoid making the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior drain fire prevention budgets to pay for big wildfires.
A shorter prescribed-burn season due to climate change is not the only challenge to reducing the toll of these fires, however. Many residential areas encroach on forests, making it harder to employ controlled burns.