Dry February: Officials looking ahead to wildfire season, possible drought

Below average rainfall has February on pace to be one of the driest months in California history. This is prompting some officials to look ahead to fire season.

On a hillside next to Highway 17 in Los Gatos, dozens of state and contract workers are clearing dry and dead brush. Captain John Byrne of Cal Fire says the bone-dry month of February is both a blessing and a curse.

“It’s good for the project, and our production rates. But things are already starting to dry out. We’re already having to be aware of the work we’re doing with chainsaws to make sure we’re not causing a fire ourselves,” said Byrne.

So far this month, no rainfall in the heart of Downtown San Jose, and just five inches since last July. Looking at weather forecasting maps at San Jose State University, and the reason is clear: A ridge of low pressure that’s blocking Pacific storms from reaching the Bay Area.

“This is like a bigger hill, it’s more of a mountain. And it’s hard to get around,” said meteorologist Dr. Alison Bridger. “There’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is look at the record books and see what typically happens.”

Recent history suggests fire season could be worse, since dry hillsides and trees aren’t getting the moisture they need. Fire officials say these conditions have led to a year-round fire season in the Golden State.

“Absent any significant rains in the Spring, we expect to see a dry season,” said Luisa Rapport with the Santa Clara County Fire Dept. “…Trees that need time to absorb moisture won’t have that opportunity.”

Santa Clara County firefighters are asking residents to start creating defensible spaces around their properties earlier this year, in anticipation of what could be a longer, drier, fire season. Additionally, the water district says conserving is always a good call.

“The reality is, whether or not we’re going to be entering a drought anytime soon or whether it’s way far off, the reality in California is we’re gonna see one. It’s gonna come. So the best thing to do is always be prepared for it,” said Valley Water spokesman Matt Keller.

Hays water usage is down 21% from 2013, and that one dry winter won’t push us to the brink. But with California’s fickle weather systems, it’s difficult to tell if one dry winter is an anomaly, or a harbinger of more harsh seasons ahead.