Dry February triggers fears of wildfire season intensity

It’s the winter season, but you won’t know it around Lake Merritt on Tuesday as joggers traversed its outer edges amid sunny skies and temperatures that soared to 70 degrees.

A perfect outdoor day for many, but the spring-like conditions are a concern for some as climate changes lead to intense fire seasons year after year. 

“Every time we get into these patters as someone interested in fire always makes me think when’s the rain coming?” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at U.C. Berkeley.

Stephens studies how the bone-dry conditions affects our state, which is prone to wildfires that continue to grow larger and more destructive. 

The world watched as monster flames ravaged parts of Australia, killing more than three dozen people, destroying more than 3,000 homes. An estimated one billion native animals were believed killed. 

Stephens said the unusual weather being experienced in the Bay Area is something not to be ignored. 

“It feels like we’re almost jumping into spring already...warm just like Australia. Australia did that this year. They jumped into their summer so quickly – they had a very dry spring and then boom, they had a huge fire season. Here we could have a similar thing,” he told KTVU from his office in Mulford Hall at the U.C. Berkeley Campus. 

In the Bay Area, the most menacing fire of 2019 was the Kincade Fire, which charred nearly 80,000 acres of land in Sonoma County.

The year before, the Camp Fire in Butte County resulted in 85 casualties.

Officials at Cal Fire are growing increasingly concerned about the dry conditions during February, a month which is counted among the wettest for the state. 

“We are getting a little worried that the fuels are drying out a little earlier than they should be normally,” said Deputy Chief Mike Marcucci, with Cal Fire Santa Clara. “If we do get a little rain and it warms up again, we start getting multiple growths of grass and in the Bay Area, that’s one of the main causes of our fires.” 

Stephens said climate change will continue to lead to these dry spells, but sees the conditions as opportunities to increase the amount of land targeted for prescribed burns to help quell the intensity of fires during wildfire season. 

“We’re going to get rain eventually; maybe March, maybe April. Things are going to get wet, so the fire is going to be basically knocked down,” said Stephens.

The rain may have pulled a disappearing act so far this month, but previous years of rain has left the Bay Area in good shape. For now, many of the state’s reservoirs are either around or above historical averages.