Rain also brings wild­fire haz­ards

New veg­e­ta­tion dries to tin­der and light­ning can spark blazes.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Joseph Serna

Con­ven­tional wis­dom holds that in drought-rav­aged Cal­i­for­nia, any hint of rain is con­sid­ered good news.

But when it comes to for­est fires, that sprin­kling can cause big prob­lems.

In North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s forests and along the Eastern Sierra, sum­mer thun­der­storms bring rain, but they also bring light­ning, which can ig­nite ma­jor fires.

Then there is the phe- nomenon called “fuel reload­ing” — when rainy weather helps sprout new blades of grass and veg­e­ta­tion — fol­lowed by a dry spell that turns it all into brush ready to burn.

“It’s a lit­tle bit of a para­dox.… You com­plain if there’s no pre­cip­i­ta­tion at all, or if there’s too much,” said Kelly Red­mond, a cli­ma­tol­o­gist with the West­ern Re­gional Cli­mate Cen­ter at the Desert Re­search In­sti­tute in Reno. “In some sit­u­a­tions, the drought does not nec­es­sar­ily lead to bad fire years in and of its own.”

There have been more than 160 light­ning-caused wild­fires in 15 of Cal­i­for­nia’s 18 na­tional forests this year,

said Stan­ton Florea of the Na­tional For­est Ser­vice.

More than half of those ig­nited in the last week, in­clud­ing the 1,000-acre Sad­dle fire in the Shasta-Trinity Na­tional For­est. Col­lec­tively, the blazes have burned more than 5,000 acres.

But of­fi­cials warn that the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fire sea­son is just be­gin­ning and that big­ger fires are ex­pected.

North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s forests saw an epic drought-fu­eled fire sea­son in 2014: Fires con­sumed more than 350,000 acres of na­tional for­est by Septem­ber, com­pared with 84,109 acres dur­ing the same pe­riod in 2013.

More than 200 struc­tures were de­stroyed.

Forests on the eastern Sierra Ne­vada along U.S. 395 are also vul­ner­a­ble to a fast­mov­ing wild­fire, Red­mond said.

The pieces were set in place last year, when a se­ries of sum­mer trop­i­cal storms in the Pa­cific reached far­ther north than nor­mal and en­cour­aged the growth of more veg­e­ta­tion. As the state’s drought per­sists, how­ever, that ex­tra growth is turn­ing into bone-dry tin­der, Red­mond said.

“When the pre­cip­i­ta­tion shuts off in the Cen­tral Val­ley, usu­ally some­time in May or June, the valve is pretty much shut off,” Red­mond said.

“We’ve seen some re­ports that be­cause of the heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion in the Great Basin [ear­lier this year], grasses are prac­ti­cally up to the un­der­belly of a horse.”

The area around Mono Lake is es­pe­cially ripe for a fire, he said.

Grass can lead small blazes to­ward big­ger fuel such as trees that are more dif­fi­cult to ig­nite with­out a per­sis­tent source around it. A huge die-out of trees in the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tain range is also adding to con­cerns that there’s more to burn, said Tom Rolin­ski, a For­est Ser­vice me­te­o­rol­o­gist.

Many storms that bring rain to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia wring out their mois­ture by the time they reach the north­ern half of the state, lead­ing to tens of thou­sands of dry-light­ning strikes.

“Any­time you got light­ning around and any grass to burn, that’s not a com­bi­na­tion you want to be down­wind of,” Red­mond said.

Daniel Ber­lant with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said his agency has reached a max­i­mum staffing of 7,000 fire­fight­ers months ear­lier than nor­mal.

“It’s been a weird weather pat­tern — any­time we get rain, it’s im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by hot tem­per­a­tures and even gusty winds,” Ber­lant said. “This lit­tle rain here or there is nice but it’s not our sav­ior.”

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