(KSWB) – While relentless precipitation across California has eased some of the state’s most concerning environmental conditions, the risk of wildfires along the western coast is likely to increase for residents moving into the dry season.
Because of the recent storms, much of the vegetation that had stunted growth over the last few years due to extreme drought has been replenished, but according to experts, this flush could become the perfect tinder for fast-moving wildfires as the plants dry out in the months ahead.
“When you build up your vegetation to those levels, the fire risk goes up. Just logically, there’s more to burn,” said Dr. Chris Potter, an ecologist with the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “That’s sort of the downside for our wet years.”
Satellite imaging from NASA’s Landsat Program indicates that the state’s vegetation cover has recuperated from lows in growth last year.
Around San Diego, for example, the region had about 25% cover in 2022. Several months into the year, the area is already back up to 30% cover, which, according to Potter, indicates the area is on track to have a good year of growth.
However, that means that it’s likely that this will create better conditions to spark an aggressive, fast-moving wildfire when the vegetation dries out.
“All this green grass, all these weeds, all this vegetation that is going to continue to flourish all the way through the spring… that’s all going to die by the summer,” warning coordination meteorologist with National Weather Service San Diego, Alexander Tardy, said. “When we start getting into the summer season and have a few heat waves and maybe a Santa Ana wind to start it off and dry it out, it’s gonna mean a lot of vegetation (will become fire fuel).”
How fast the plants die will determine the extent of the additional fire hazard that the state has moving into the “wildfire season,” given this extra vegetation growth.
The distribution of water and overall moisture levels in the ground will play a major role in the speed at which the landscape dries out and plants die — the biggest factor in that being how fast the state’s snowpack melts.
The numerous atmospheric rivers that have come through the region since December have pushed snowpack levels well above seasonal averages — both at low and high elevations.
Having a lot of snow ultimately won’t matter much though, lead scientist with the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory Andrew Schwartz explained to FOX5SanDiego.com — what will is how long the snowpack stays on the ground.
“The longer we can get it to stick around, the more moisture it’s going to contribute to our ecosystem and the vegetation, which means that’s less time for that to dry out as we go into the summer,” he said.
The weather California gets in the coming months will be the determining factor for the state’s snowpack. Warmer rains or hotter temperatures could cause the accumulated snow to melt faster than ideal, leaving less water for the ecosystem during summer and early fall.
While lower elevation snow is likely to melt sooner rather than later, Schwartz said that there’s a good possibility that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains will stick around into early summer months, helping provide sustained moisture to the surrounding ecosystem.
“We want to see cool temperatures for as long as possible and no abrupt melt periods, because if we can keep the snow pack around into June, July, even August potentially, that’ll really help quell our fire dangers,” he explained. “We have a really good possibility of having a healthy snowpack into (those) months.”
That reduced fire hazard, however, will mostly be felt in higher elevation areas that do not see a ton of growth among the kinds of plants that are likely to fuel wildfires – vegetation like shrubs and native grasses.
Healthy growth of this vegetation will be important to monitor, Potter said. Weeds, or other ‘noxious plants,’ likely could disrupt the replenishing of native grasses, sucking up more water from the soil and leading to a faster dry out of the landscape.
“(Weedy grasses) can sort of fool you into thinking this is a healthy ecosystem,” he said. “They’re not the kind of grass we want and (they) could burn very quickly.”
State climatologist, Dr. Michael Anderson, said that it will likely be awhile before the state’s ecosystem has fully recovered from the extensive drought seen the last few years, despite the recent rains and drought conditions improving for much of the state.
That could indicate quicker drying out periods for vegetation already under stress from drought.
“The fire hazard is evolving as we go through spring,” Anderson said in response to a question from FOX5SanDiego.com during a recent press briefing. “(It’s a) dynamic situation that we’ll need to watch.”