Northern California’s arid landscape is primed for an early and prolonged wildfire season

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Anyone who has been to the countryside lately has seen it: the browning of hillsides that were once brilliant green from winter rains.

It’s a normal part of the seasonal change in Northern California, where sun-ripened grasses turn the region’s hills golden brown.

Trouble is, it’s happening six or eight weeks earlier than usual, raising the specter of an early start to the summer fire season.

A prolonged dry spell that pushed the region into a third year of drought has made the landscape so dry that conditions in early April are more like those typical in late May or June.

Plant moisture data, the sort of thing watched closely by fire weather watchers and emergency service personnel, put potential fire intensity well above average and in record territory for most of the last six weeks.

As a result, local Cal Fire officials are calling in seasonal workers a month and a half early, preparing for the long and difficult months ahead. And they preach prevention and defensive maintenance in the strongest terms, knowing that grasslands, brush and forests will only get more combustible as the year goes by.

“Optimistically, we can control ignitions by being safe, and if we can control our ignitions, that means there are fewer fires,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said, noting that lightning remains beyond the control of humans.

“We have to be hypervigilant about what we’re doing there,” Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said. “It’s a spark. It’s a bad day.

It should come as no surprise that drought years produce dry vegetation. But this weird weather year – heavy with rain in October and December, then next to nothing for the last three months – has complicated things, first priming the pump for rapid plant growth, then leaving it largely high and dry then. that the calendar was tilting towards 2022 .

Greening of wild grasses and growth of fresh shrubs peaked before normal. With no new growth, grasses have begun to die back and shrubs are accumulating less water than they would if they were still growing, said meteorology professor Craig B. Clements, director of Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research. Center and the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University. .

Local land stewards have for months noticed what Brian Peterson, an Audubon Canyon Ranch fire ecologist, called “a very early botanical year,” in which the growing season was accelerated by several atmospheric rivers. early, but now left the grasses seeding early and drying out.

Bob Neale, director of stewardship at the Sonoma Land Trust, said: “We’ve been talking about these things since December, actually, after getting all this rain and seeing the taps turned off.”

Living trees still show bright green with new leaves, but drying grasses mean forage is low for livestock and even some types of wildflowers are less plentiful, he said.

More concerning are trees damaged in previous fires that suddenly give up and fall on landholdings around Sonoma County. It’s unclear, however, if this is due to previous damage, prolonged drought, or a combination of factors, Neale said.

Dead logs – forests that are full of them, unburned for decades, from Forestville west to the coast – are what worries Turbeville the most.

He fears the March 1 Alpine Fire, which charred 21 acres of thick forest above Monte Rio, was the harbinger of a summer wildfire season prolonged by parched vegetation.

“We’re not panicking at this point,” Turbeville said.

“It’s just the realization that we’re talking about fire season all year round, but basically the start of summer fire season is getting earlier and earlier,” and with it “the impending disaster of fire season – a reminder that it’s going to be here sooner rather than later.

Chamise, a woody shrub common to chaparral plant communities in California, is widely sampled across the state to measure plant moisture content, or how much water there is in vegetation relative to plant material.

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