The 2020 wildfire season was the most extreme in California history, with nearly 9,500 fires burning approximately four million acres across the state.
Four million acres is about 4% of the land within California.
Five of six of the largest wildfires in state history occurred last year; the August complex alone burned an area roughly the size of Rhode Island and has been called the state’s first ever “gigafire.”
Locally, the Creek Fire kept things dark and smoky for nearly two months while burning through the High Sierra.
Mammoth Lakes was deemed to have the fourth-worst air quality in the country last year as a result.
So what is the outlook in 2021? Did last year’s large scale fires burn enough to prevent massive fires again this year?
The answer, it seems, is no.
Since April 12, there have been seven fires in the state and while they have remained relatively small, three were still burning as of Thursday, April 29.
The largest fire still active is the North Fire in Los Angeles, which had burned 640 acres and was 25% contained as of press time.
The Sheet spoke with Tom Rolinksi, a fire scientist with Southern California Edison (SCE), about the upcoming fire season and what tools the utility has to aid in the detection and prediction of wildfires.
Rolinski is a meteorologist by trade, having spent time working for the National Weather Service, Bureau of Land Management, and United States Forest Service before moving to SCE. He co-created the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index, a modeling system that helps to determine the wildfire threat during a particular weather system.
In determining the expected severity of a given fire season, Rolinksi explained that there are a number of factors to consider, including fuel conditions, vegetation, precipitation, humidity and general weather patterns.
With weather, there’s both the “short fuse” and “long fuse” conditions. Short fuse weather can be difficult to predict until shortly before it happens: wind events, lightning, etc. An example of a long fuse would be drought, which takes place over an extended period and increases the potential for ignition.
The bottom line: “I think we’re going to have a fire season starting earlier than normal” Rolinski told The Sheet, “I think this fire season has the potential to be a very active one.”
Fire season typically starts in mid-May and ends in mid-November, with a peak between September and November as the Santa Ana winds return, which “coincides with when fuels are at their driest.” It’s difficult for meteorologists like Rolinski to predict what peak season may look like this far
That there are already fires popping up around the state is a point of concern.
The conditions are “drier than they should be”, he said, which bumps up the timeline for the start of fire season and the state is more likely “to see larger fires occurring in fire season earlier than normal.”
He also pointed to tree mortality as a key factor, adding that massive timber die-off over the past few years created the conditions that allowed the Creek Fire to burn intensely.
Will the fires be as bad as last year? “Probably not,” Rolinski said, based on the conditions he’s been observing.
Although 2020 was a record year in terms of burned acreage, “there’s still a lot left to burn, “ Rolinski said, “You really can’t make projections on how much we expect to have burned this year … fuels are already drier than they normally would be.”
There is some good news to be had: “We do have less of a grass crop this year just due to lack of rainfall,” Rolinski explained. The terrain typically starts to “green up” in late December or early January; this year, that has happened much later.
“When we have less grass available to burn, it typically results in fewer ignitions,” Rolinski said. He explained that a lot of fires are caused by roadside ignition, when a car pulls over and the heat from the engine can provide enough heat to light dry grass. Dry grass fires can quickly ignite larger fuels if they grow out of control and with diminished grass presence, the connectivity between small and large fuels is reduced.
What’s SCE doing to mitigate the impacts of fires on the landscape? Rolinski said long-term grid “hardening” is underway to reduce the potential for a utility-ignited blaze. SCE is in the process of adding covered conductors across its circuits and installing switching devices that allow for pinpoint de-energization on a circuit. The goal: maintain as much service as possible during wind events without blacking out an entire circuit.
In addition, SCE’s prediction and modeling abilities have been buffed out. The utility has installed 1,000 weather stations across its coverage territory that monitor temperature, humidity, wind speed, etc. to aid in decision-making. 161 early detection cameras have also been added to the network to detect wildfires before they grow out of control.
Both of those resources, he said, are available to the public.
On the modeling side, SCE added two more supercomputers to its existing two, allowing for modeling at a higher resolution. The active two computers allow for a 2 kilometer model; adding two more doubles the resolution a single kilometer.
Rolinski runs millions of simulations through these computers, which can place an ignition at any point in the service area and model the effects across a variety of conditions.
When asked if the number of Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events might increase this year, Rolinski said that there’s no way knowing. The events are driven by the weather and given how unpredictable it can be, especially in the Sierra, there is no way to say for certain.
“I wish I could,” he said, “That’s not just exclusive to SCE, that’s just true in the weather business.”
Speaking of fires …
The following is a press release from the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department about campfires at dispersed camping sites.
Fires are currently allowed in dispersed camping areas in Mono County, but it is extremely important to obtain a permit and build campfires safely. With an overly dry winter behind us, we’re now facing what is shaping up to be a summer with severely high fire danger.
Always check to ensure there aren’t any fire restrictions in the area where you plan to camp, and visit https://permit.preventwildfiresca.org/ to obtain a campfire permit.
None of us want to see a smoke-filled summer like last year! So please do your part to keep this beautiful area safe.
Directives included in the permit are:
-Know and comply with all current fire restrictions for the area where you plan to use a campfire
-Clear all flammable materials from the ground for five feet in all diretions from the edge of the fire. Keep a shovel and water nearby
-Keep the fire small- Think of the fire in a cube that’s 2 ft. by 2 ft. by 2 ft.
Always personally supervise the campfire until it is completely extinguished or ensure that another knowledeable and responsible adult supervises the fire
-Always personally make sure the fire is dead out and completely cold before you leave it unsupervised. Extinguish the fire with water and a shovel using the “drown, stir, and feel” method.
An additional note: Prevent the spread of invasive species. Get your firewood near where you burn it. Don’t bring firewood from home and don’t take it home with you. Learn more at www.firewood.ca.gov