This year’s fire season is shaping up to be a brutal one.
Early storms in the fall brought enough rainfall to trigger grass and vegetation growth, but this winter has seen just a fraction of the average rain and snowfall for the region. Forecasters don’t expect the remainder of the winter to be much wetter.
If the forecasts hold true, the result will be an excess of dried vegetation or "fuel" several months prior to the Southern California’s traditional fire season in the fall.
This month, the National Interagency Fire Center released a fire outlook through the spring. According to the report, the region saw less than half the normal rainfall, and December’s snow-pack level was less than 10 percent of the month’s average.
“The lack of winter snow may also lead to the possibility of drought returning to a large portion of the area by the beginning to middle part of spring… expect fuel conditions to dry significantly and support significant fires across the Southwest and the far Southeast,” the interagency’s forecasters concluded. La Nina weather conditions are expected to remain in place for the rest of the winter with lower than normal precipitation.
“For the last couple years, they nailed it dead-on," said Orange County Fire Authority Marc Stone. "We are definitely in for an elevated fire season at this point. There is really no technical fire season in Southern California anymore. It’s become kind of a year-round process.”
Wide swaths of Orange County present concerns for firefighters because of the urban interface where homes and buildings butt up against the wilderness. Perennial areas of concern include the foothills of Brea and Yorba Linda down through the canyons to Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Ladera Ranch and the hills around Laguna Beach down to San Clemente, he said. Even where major fires have burned up the chaparral in blazes such as the Santiago Canyon or Freeway Complex fires, grass, a fast burning fuel, has replaced the shrub.
“We still have in Orange County plenty of vegetation that hasn’t burned in 40 years,” said Stone. “When you have warm temperatures, heavy wind and low precipitation, that’s when you get in critical fire conditions.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Water Resources conducted the year’s first snow survey, prompting CAL FIRE concern about increased fire danger. The lack of precipitation across the state has led to one of the driest winters on record, according to CAL FIRE.
According to the findings, the statewide water content is at 19 percent of normal. Despite the fact that many areas of the state are experiencing cooler temperatures, the drier than normal conditions, coupled with wind and low humidity, have frequently increased the fire danger over the last month. Last month CAL FIRE crews responded to an increased number of wildfires for a typical December.
Fire officials are asking residents to protect their homes in advance of the pending fire season. Measures range from the expensive changes such as replacing wood shingle roofs with fire-resistant materials to smaller measures such as clearing brush within 100-feet of the home, moving wood piles away from the house, replacing the mesh on attic vents with smaller mesh that embers can’t pass through, and creating an emergency evacuation plan.
Residents living within the jurisdiction of the Orange County Fire Authority can call for free consultation to have an expert come to their home and offer fire prevention and safety tips.
“Be ready. Have a plan,” said Stone. “When we say ‘evacuate,’ that is not the time to be pulling pictures off the wall and putting them in the car.”