Fire season comes early to Santa Clarita

Los Angeles County Fire Department trucks seek to protect a neighborhood near where the North Fire broke out in Castaic recently. Fire experts noted that dry conditions, spring heat and the winds could make for an unusually difficult fire season this year. PHOTO BY DAN WATSON / THE SIGNAL
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Fire experts forecast 2021 to be one of the worst years for brushfires to date. 

In a normal year, the state’s fire season lasts from mid-May to around early November. However, persistent drought conditions, low reservoir storage and a below-average snowpack have resulted in an early arrival. 

“This year, we’re already starting to see small fires developing, kind of popping up … we started seeing that probably for the last three weeks or so,” said Tom Rolinski, a fire scientist with Southern California Edison, around the time the 640-acre North Fire broke out in Castaic at the end of April. 

Smaller fires, such as ones at 4-5 acres, are occurring on days with even benign weather, Rolinski said, when it’s not too hot and there’s not a lot of wind, but they’re still occurring. Scientists noted there’s another factor propagating the blazes: fuel.

“(It’s) basically an indication that the vegetation is now becoming more receptive to fire, the grasses are curing, they’re drying out,” said Rolinski. “And once we into the next couple of weeks here, where the grasses are fully dried out, when we get those warmer drier days, particularly in the inland areas like Santa Clarita, we’re going to see larger fires occurring here probably in the next several weeks as we get into the early, to middle part of May.”

How does dry vegetation occur? 

Across all of Los Angeles County, a lack of precipitation during the winter and early spring months has contributed to low levels of fuel moisture across all vegetation and brush, according to officials at the National Weather Service. 

“Unfortunately, without much rainfall this year, it hasn’t been able to really rise to those levels that we want to see, and it’s starting to dry out faster and faster,” said Kristen Stewart, meteorologist at the NWS.  “So, this year, we could see an earlier start to the high fire season.”

Stewart said that in Los Angeles County, as of April 28, there has been almost six inches of total rainfall on average, about 8.5 inches less than what is considered normal.  

In order to understand how the dryness caused by low moisture in the fuel will affect fires, scientists have been taking fuel samples in areas, such as Acton, that are deemed to be high risk, in order to learn what the condition of the fuel is. 

“Are we looking at just grass, are we looking at a mixture of different types of vegetation like you know grass and brush and maybe there’s some timber mixed in?” said Rolinski. “So, it kind of depends on the location, and it depends on how much fuel is on the ground, something we call a fuel loading, which is really the again the amount of vegetation or the the amount of fuel that we have in a particular area.”

Both Rolinski and Stewart noted that weather, such as high winds, will be a prominent factor in the dispersal of fire. And this year’s Santa Ana’s are set to bring more wind, more dry air to the SCV.

What is being done?  

“I guess the one good thing that I could report out on is that the, the grasses that we normally see spring up in the kind of in late December and January and make the hillsides nice and green during the wintertime, those grasses are a lot less robust than than normal, which means that there’s going to be less fuel on the ground, less lighter fuels on the ground,” said Rolinski.

Having less fuel on the ground means fewer roadside ignitions and less fuel connectivity, meaning that the heavier brush and lighter brush are less likely to catch one another on fire, said Rolinski.

That being said, the United States Drought Monitor, a project run jointly by the National Drought Mitigation Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said that in the last seven days much of California has received less than .5 inches of precipitation, and much of the state is suffering from an “extreme drought.” 

The reality is, according to researchers, that for areas such as the Santa Clarita Valley, climate change, population spread, and a host of other factors, are going to result in a significant year in terms of fire size and quantity.

The National Weather Service and Southern California Edison have urged people to follow the science, and have the brush cleared from their home and their families trained on what their escape plan would be in the event of a disaster. Additionally, the power company has taken steps in the past year to increase the defenses and toughness of their electrical grid, working to ensure that weather patterns and wildfire conditions are not exacerbated by a downed electrical equipment.

Additionally, in response to the increased fire season dangers, Gov Gavin Newsom announced his approval of $80.74 million for 1,399 additional firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to bolster fuels management and wildfire response efforts. A total of $1 billion had already been allocated in the Jan. 2021 budget to support wildfire and forest management.  

“In California, climate change is making the hots hotter and the dries drier, leaving us with world record-breaking temperatures and devastating wildfires threatening our communities,” said  Newsom. “We aren’t just waiting for the next crisis to hit – this funding will support our heroic firefighters to save lives as they work to prevent and tackle destructive wildfires.”

However, with all these preparations in mind, officials say residents should continue to act responsibly. 

“It’s just about being prepared ahead of time, being proactive and aware of your situation.” 

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