State is ab­nor­mally dry after quiet win­ter

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By Olga R. Rodriguez

SAN FRAN­CISCO » A dry begin­ning of the year has left most of Cal­i­for­nia ab­nor­mally parched, as of­fi­cials brace for the pos­si­bil­ity of an early and more in­tense wild­fire sea­son amid record-break­ing tem­per­a­tures.

Drought has ex­panded from just un­der 10% of the state last week to nearly a quar­ter, mainly in cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, the heart of the state’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. Drought Mon­i­tor map made pub­lic Thurs­day. The map re­leased weekly shows an­other 43% of the state is now ab­nor­mally dry.

This month is shap­ing up to be the dri­est Fe­bru­ary on record for much of the state. Chances of light show­ers are on the hori­zon Satur­day night but not again un­til March 10.

Sierra Lit­tle­field, a Na­tional Weather Ser­vice me­te­o­rol­o­gist in Sacra­mento, said there is a strong chance the state’s cap­i­tal will see a com­pletely dry Fe­bru­ary — some­thing that has not hap­pened in recorded his­tory.

Down­town San Fran­cisco is on its way to its first rain-free Fe­bru­ary since 1864, ac­cord­ing to the weather ser­vice.

The lack of rain this year comes after a wet 2019 that capped moun­tains with snow, de­liv­er­ing water to reser­voirs and help­ing to boost lush veg­e­ta­tion that can quickly turn into fuel for wild­fires dur­ing dry, windy con­di­tions.

About 75% of Cal­i­for­nia’s an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion typ­i­cally oc­curs from De­cem­ber through Fe­bru­ary, mostly from what’s known as at­mo­spheric rivers — long plumes of mois­ture orig­i­nat­ing far out in the Pa­cific Ocean.

But a high-pres­sure sys­tem parked in the Pa­cific has blocked storms from reach­ing Cal­i­for­nia and in­stead steered them to the Pa­cific North­west.

“Cal­i­for­nia and parts of the South­west dried out while the North­west ob­served sur­plus pre­cip­i­ta­tion,” wrote NOAA me­te­o­rol­o­gist David Miskus, who is­sued this week’s Drought Mon­i­tor re­port.

A sim­i­lar high-pres­sure sys­tem led to a statewide drought from 2011 to 2017 that prompted then-Gov. Jerry Brown to or­der Cal­i­for­nia’s

nearly 40 mil­lion peo­ple to cut water use by 25% — the first man­date of its kind in the state.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans heeded the call, tak­ing shorter show­ers and rip­ping out their lawns dur­ing the five-year drought.

State water of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that it’s too early to con­sider con­ser­va­tion mea­sures and pointed out reser­voirs statewide are ei­ther at or above their his­tor­i­cal av­er­ages for this time of year.

“A few dry months re­ally doesn’t make a drought,” said Chris Or­rock, a spokesman for the Depart­ment of Water Re­sources. “If we have to go through two dry years, then we start look­ing at what ad­di­tional con­ser­va­tion mea­sures we need.”

In an­other sign of Cal­i­for­nia’s dry con­di­tions, state of­fi­cials on Thurs­day con­ducted a sur­vey of the Sierra Ne­vada snow­pack and found it was 47% of the March aver­age at the Sierra’s Phillips Sta­tion.

The first read­ing on Jan. 2 found the snow­pack was 97% of the Jan­uary aver­age. But dry con­di­tions since then have hurt snow­fall, which sup­plies about 30% of Cal­i­for­nia’s water.

“Fe­bru­ary rain and snow were quite dis­ap­point­ing,” said Sean de Guz­man, chief of the depart­ment’s snow sur­veys and water sup­ply fore­cast­ing sec­tion. “We’ll most likely end this water year be­low aver­age. We just don’t know how far be­low.”

Also Thurs­day, U.S. For­est Ser­vice crews were bat­tling a fire in brush and tim­ber at Men­do­cino Na­tional For­est in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, fire­fight­ers quickly knocked down sev­eral brush fires on Wed­nes­day.

State fire­fight­ers have re­sponded to 280 small wild­fires since the begin­ning of the year. In the same pe­riod last year, there were just 85 re­ported fires, said Scott McLean, a spokesman with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion.

Ear­lier this month, the For­est Ser­vice bat­tled a blaze at the 4,000-foot level, where there should be snow at this time of year, McLean said.

McLean said Cal­i­for­nia is pre­pared with air­craft and fire­fight­ers ready to be de­ployed if needed, and of­fi­cials have been im­ple­ment­ing fire mit­i­ga­tion pro­grams.


A man climbs a bluff on Corona Heights in front of the sky­line seen from Tank Hill in San Fran­cisco, Wed­nes­day.

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