El Niño rains may have done more harm than good for 2016 fire season

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LOS GATOS - The heart of California’s fire season is rapidly approaching, but the wet El Niño winter may actually have done more harm than good for the 2016 fire forecast.

Winter storms have encouraged brush growth to levels not seen in years, according to Cal Fire. And that means there’s more fuel to burn during fire season.

“We had a very strong El Niño, but the amount of rainfall that we got was a lot more like what we get normally,” said Jim Crawford, with CalFire’s Santa Clara unit. “Because of that, we are seeing a spring push that's been pretty significant as far as the annual grasses and the brush growing.”

CalFire crews were working with a sense of urgency when KTVU tagged along with them in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the Lexington Reservoir in early May. Crews with chainsaws were clearing brush and blasting through branches.

Along with them, the mobile lab for the fire weather research laboratory at San Jose State, driven by Dr. Craig Clements, a professor in the meteorology department.

“The last two years the team has been deployed to 14 wildfires in the state of California,” said Clements.

The team travels to real fires and sets experimental ones in order to boost their understanding of how weather impacts fire behavior. Their truck carries a mobile Doppler LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) unit to collect 3D samples of the wind, as well as a microwave profiler to scan temperature and humidity.

Clements’ team sampled brush about 15 minutes from downtown Los Gatos, where you could see dead material next to new growth on a hillside. During June, July, and August the brush will dry out rapidly, according to the researchers, and even the strongest El Niño on record would not be able to wipe out the risk of peak fire season.

Graduate research assistant Chris Camacho helped Clements fill four cans of samples, and transported them back to the university lab where they were put in an oven for 24 hours.

The next day’s measurements of those dried out samples provide the research team a difference in weight that allows them to calculate fuel moisture.

“Compared to the average, we are just slightly below the average for new growth,” said Clements.

The moisture levels were close to normal but will likely head towards low critical levels by fall, according to the team. Clements said by September or October “fuels are already going to be primed” and wildfires will likely be wind and fuel driven.

Beginning June 1 Clements and his team will be ready to travel to any wildfire in the area to keep tabs on how the fire season progresses.


KTVU meteorologist Mark Tamayo reports.