Winter rains bring new threats for Western firefighters

Winter rains bring new threats for Western firefighters

SACRAMENTO — The deluge of storms that soaked drought-parched California in the winter, filling reservoirs and packing snow on the Sierra Nevadas, also brought hope that the state would get some relief after years of devastating forest fires.

But now officials are worried about a new threat, one that could put thousands of homes in Western states at risk of a different kind of fire.

The winter storms have unleashed a bumper crop of highly flammable grasses in lowland foothills across the West. Those grasses don’t grow as much during drought conditions. 

But when they have enough water to grow, they dry out much earlier than wildland forests, creating fast-burning fuel in territory that is closer to expanding suburban and exurban homes than forests at higher elevations.

“We may have had a significantly wet winter,” Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview in his Sacramento office overlooking the state Capitol. “That doesn’t take away the impact of five years of drought.”

The National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, projects a growing fire danger in parts of California by July, and an increasing threat into August. 

The winter rains have lowered the threat of a damaging fire season in mountainous areas, but the threat has shifted into lower elevations, said Jessica Gardetto, an agency spokeswoman.


“When you have a period of drought and suddenly you have a normal or better-than-normal winter, you will get a lot of fine fuel growth,” said Keith Gilless, a forestry expert at the University of California-Berkeley. “The danger with the grasses, they will dry out regardless of how much rain [there is]. They’re going to get dry as heck by fire season, regardless of how wet the winter was.”

Grasslands are much more likely to be in close proximity to communities than forests. And those grasses burn faster than trees, which adds to the threat to buildings and homes.

“You can easily run up a fire up to several thousand acres in the space of just a few hours,” Pimlott said. 

So far this year, more than 22,000 acres have burned in California, more than typical before the end of the rainy season and the beginning of what’s commonly thought of as fire season. 

Nationally, far more acres have burned this year than is typical. The National Interagency Fire Center said 2.1 million acres have burned, more than twice as many as the annual average for this time of year.

Instead of California, it is southeastern states that have been hit hardest. Dry conditions in Florida and Georgia have spurred conflagrations that are ongoing: More than 750 fire fighters are battling the 152,000-acre West Mims fire in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Fargo, Ga. Another fire has burned 8,800 acres in the Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge near Avon Park, Fla.

Fire teams are also racing to contain four fires in Arizona and New Mexico. Fires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., destroyed more than 2,400 buildings and killed 14 people last winter.

California officials are worried about the more than 102 million dead trees that litter the Sierra Nevada range. Those trees, killed by a combination of a massive beetle infestation and the five-year drought, are more susceptible to fire than living trees, meaning a rough fire season may still be around the corner.

Pimlott says the changing climate has increased the annual fire season. Some experts say the season is expanding by days, or even weeks, every year. Those changes are likely to squeeze local, state and federal budgets in coming years as governments prioritize fire fighting over fire prevention.

“We may ebb and flow from year to year, but the trend is upward,” Pimlott said of the annual fire danger. “We’re turning from what had been a seasonal workforce to a year-round challenge.”