Red flag warning in May? Fire season arrives early in Northern California

Red flag warning in May? Fire season arrives early in Northern California

Last year’s devastating wildfire season was barely in the rear-view mirror when the red flag warning hit Sunday for a large swath of Northern California.

In another example of the Golden State’s new normal, the National Weather Service issued a surprisingly early-in-the-year fire alert for the area from Shasta Dam to just north of Los Banos, touching on the eastern fringes of the Bay Area.

By Sunday afternoon, an eerie reminder of the potential danger could be found inside Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where crews battled a small blaze. Big Basin remains closed after 97% of California’s oldest state park was charred last August during the CZU Lightning Complex fire.

The state’s persistent drought, combined with low humidity and strong northeasterly winds Sunday, signaled an early start to the fire season even without the triple-digit temperatures of late summer.

“It’s crazy, May and a red-flag warning,” said Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University.

Experts said Sunday that a confluence of weather phenomena have created a looming hazard the year after a record 4.1 million acres in California were scorched in 2020.

The lack of precipitation has accelerated curing, the annual drying process of brush, trees and grasses. This condition leads to a low fuel-moisture content, which is a measure of the amount of water in vegetation available to a fire.

Once vegetation is cured, atmospheric humidity affects their moisture content instead of soil moisture, Clements said, adding he predicts the levels will be lower than they were last year.

“In a better scenario, we wouldn’t be dealing with this until the traditional fire season in the fall,” NWS meteorologist Gerry Diaz said.

The last time the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning as early as May for Northern California’s interior was in 2014.

In many ways, the fire season is year-round now: Firefighters have responded to more than 1,300 blazes since Jan. 1, CalFire officials said. On Saturday, wind-whipped flames of the Southern Fire began burning in eastern San Diego County; by Sunday afternoon, the blaze had consumed some 2,900 acres and led to the destruction of three structures and the evacuation of about 500 residents.

In the Bay Area on Sunday, crews also battled small fires in Pittsburg and Solano County. Cal Fire crews responded to a blaze that burned about three-quarters of an acre on Hihn Hammond Truck Trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, officials reported.

Small fires have broken out in Big Basin park since the CZU fire destroyed 100 buildings, said Chris Spohrer, Santa Cruz District state parks superintendent. Strong winds can sustain those fires, like the one Sunday.

“With a normal rain year a lot of this would be extinguished,” Spohrer said April 22. “But we just didn’t have that this year.”

Spohrer said park officials expect more fires through the summer.

Hours before the Basin Fire ignited, Cal Fire officials had announced an immediate halt to backyard burns in Santa Cruz County. The Santa Cruz-San Mateo unit plans to staff nine or 10 engines by Monday, spokeswoman Cecile Juliette. The unit has 13 engines on duty during peak fire season.

Fire experts are particularly concerned about the lack of recovery for the area’s vegetation. Juliette said recent samples indicate San Mateo County fuels have reached historic lows.

“We’re starting to see fuel moistures we don’t see until later on in summer,” she said.

Warmer spring temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt have colluded to make forests more susceptible to wildfire.

“We must continue to adapt and evolve to be able to withstand the intensity of these fires,” Cal Fire director Thom Porter said in a statement.  “We are relying on the public to be ready.”

The National Weather Service’s Diaz said the situation should not come as a surprise to anyone monitoring the winter’s measly precipitation levels. San Francisco International Airport is 37% of normal rainfall for the year, Diaz said. Oakland is 40%, San Jose 43% and Santa Rosa 37%.

Last month, the state Department of Water Resources announced that it expects to deliver just 5 percent of requested supplies this year. Bay Area regional water districts have taken different approaches to encourage customers to reduce their usage.

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