The lengthening of the fire season has become clear in California, which usually didn’t see major fires until the Santa Ana winds kicked in in the fall and vegetation had dried out over several months.
Now bouts of hot, dry weather are coming earlier and earlier, setting the stage for prime fire conditions. Southern California already has a nearly year-round fire season, Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, said.
With those hot periods likely coming earlier and earlier in spring and summer as global temperatures continue to rise, “you’re going to have a longer period where fire can ignite and move,” Stephens said.
While the past few years in California have seen wildfires fueled by the record-setting drought in the state that killed off swaths of trees, this fire season has been helped by the opposite conditions. Ample winter rains allowed grasslands to flourish, so when hot, dry conditions came in June, those grasses were quickly cured into perfect fire fuel, Stephens said.
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With the shifts in the fire season, policymakers and fire managers may have to begin to rethink some of their strategies for preventing fires, particularly as the longer fire season eats into the time that managers have to conduct prescribed burns to burn up potential fuel, Stephens said. Areas may also have to do more prescribed burns during drought years, to reduce fuel loads, he said.
Funding for firefighting — the costs of which have topped $1 billion in 12 of the past 15 years — may also have to be rethought. Instead of having a seasonal firefighting team, funding may have to be put in place for a year-round one, Stephens said.
Hot and dry conditions are expected to persist across the West over the next few days, which could help more fires start and spread. Areas in the path of next month’s solar eclipse, particularly drought-plagued Montana, are also concerned about the influx of eclipse watchers who may not be aware of the fire danger or the precautions they’ll need to take in order to avoid accidentally setting one.
“It’s really important that people recognize” that danger and are aware of the various fire restrictions in place, Broyles said.