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‘Mother Nature Turned Off The Spigot’: California Wildfires Fueled By ‘Remarkable’ Dry Weather Conditions

A Southern California wildfire that burned through 8,000 acres yesterday has marked an early and ominous start to the state’s fire season.

The fire, fueled by unusually dry conditions and 25 to 60 mph winds that usually aren’t seen until late fall, has damaged 15 homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of Ventura County residents. As of today, the so-called Springs fire spans more than 15 square miles, with weather forecasts predicting temperatures in the 90s and continuing strong winds.

California has experienced record low rainfall since the “rain year” began in July 2012, with Los Angeles receiving only about five inches of rain since then. Though the winter and early spring months are typically some of Califorina’s wettest, since 2013 began, downtown L.A. has received less than two inches of rain — a fraction of the 11 inches that’s typical for the region at this time of year. The year’s low rainfall coupled with strong Santa Ana winds have created perfect conditions for wildfires in the region, as climatologist William Patzert told the L.A. Times:

It was promising up to December and then all of sudden Mother Nature turned off the spigot,” he said. “It’s remarkable to get Santa Anas in May.… Every way you look at it, it’s been remarkable, unusual and incendiary.

So far, firefighters in California have responded to more than 680 wildfires this year — 200 more the average for this point in the season. In addition to the Springs fire, a wildfire in Riverside County east of L.A. burned through at least 2,950 acres and destroyed two homes before being contained on Thursday, and several fires erupted in Northern California this week as well. The fire risk isn’t expected to let up as the summer goes on — forecasters doubt the Southern California region will receive substantial rain this summer, which has led federal officials to warn of a potentially “devastating” fire season for the state.

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And California’s isn’t alone. Multiple studies have linked the risk of stronger, more frequent wildfires to the effects of climate change — most recently, a federal report warned that climate change will double the area of the U.S. burned by wildfires by 2050. Thanks to dry, hot conditions in much of the western U.S., the National Interagency Fire Center predicted this week that fire season could begin early in Oregon and Washington this year as well as in California.

In addition to California’s low rainfall, the state is experiencing decreased snowpack this year, a problem that, as well as exacerbating the state’s dry conditions, spells trouble for California’s freshwater supply. California’s snowpack levels are only at 17 percent of normal readings for this time of year. Water from snowpack usually accounts for up to 75 percent of western California’s freshwater supply and 30 percent of freshwater to the state as a whole.