The drought is over. So why is California’s wildfire risk growing?

Record winter rainfall raises potential for summer tragedy

The drought is over, but that doesn't mean the end of calamity for Northern California – the abundance of rain and snow could produce more wildfires and drownings, officials say.
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The drought is over, but that doesn't mean the end of calamity for Northern California – the abundance of rain and snow could produce more wildfires and drownings, officials say.

The drought is over, but that doesn’t mean the end of calamity for Northern California. The abundance of rain and snow could produce more wildfires and drownings, officials say.

Fires already have burned nearly 10 times as much territory statewide as they did during the same period of 2016. And while forecasters say the record winter rainfall could delay the outbreak of major fires until July or August, it has also fed large swaths of grass, shrubs and other fire fuels that will soon begin drying out in the warmer weather.

“Just because the drought is over doesn’t mean the fire danger’s gone,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

Evidence of that can be seen just in one fire already this year – the Jayne Fire that erupted the afternoon of April 20 south of Coalinga and within a day had scorched 5,738 acres.

So far this year, Cal Fire says 431 fires have burned 7,245 acres, compared to 553 fires last year at this point that had burned 831 acres.

By this time last year, Cal Fire already had added 400 seasonal firefighters to remove dense brush, perform prescribed burns and conduct other preventive efforts. The agency has not yet done that this year but is planning at least 250,000 inspections statewide of homes and businesses to ensure they have defensible space before fire season swings into full gear.

The latest forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center predicts a slower start to fire season in Northern California, but “a robust fire season in July and August.”

Firefighters in Sacramento are particularly concerned about the wide areas of new grass growing along the American River Parkway, which where arson and accidental fires regularly occur every year. They also will be dealing with a huge number of dead and downed trees that were swept downriver as dam operators unleashed record amounts of water down the parkway.

“Once it starts drying in July and August, we’ll see a lot more fire fuels starting to dry out,” said Sacramento Fire spokesman Chris Harvey.

The department already is discussing whether it may need to begin setting prescribed burns along the parkway, although Harvey said such burns may not be needed before June, depending on how warm the weather is.

All the rainfall and melting snow in the mountains has created another headache for Sacramento-area officials – an exceptionally dangerous drowning season along the American River.

With water levels unusually high and cold, and numerous trees and other hazards hidden beneath the surface, officials say the potential for tragedy along area beaches and on the river is high.

On Monday, five rafters were dumped into the American River near the Sunrise Boulevard access, and two who were clinging to pilings of the PCA pedestrian bridge at Sacramento Bar had to be rescued by Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District crews.

None of the five was wearing a life jacket, despite constant warnings by officials of the danger the river poses.

The same day, as afternoon temperatures climbed into the 90s, a 13-year-old boy disappeared after jumping into the water at Negro Bar State Park, where the water temperature is about 50 degrees. Searchers found his body Wednesday, making him the first fatality of the drowning season.

“Every year’s difficult because the water changes the bottom of the river,” said John Mohamed of Sacramento’s Drowning Accident Rescue Team. “The obstacles change because of the high water, and I would anticipate that there will be more dangers in the water this year.”

DART team members plan to patrol the river every weekend this year starting on Memorial Day weekend to warn boaters, swimmers and others of the dangerous conditions and to urge everyone to use life jackets that are readily available for free at many area beaches and firehouses.

Don't be the river’s next victim. Use the Sacramento Drowning Accident Rescue Team’s tips to save yourself from drowning.

This year may be particularly difficult, however, because the high, fast and cold water releases are expected to last much longer than in past years as flood-control officials deal with snowmelt from the mountains.

This week, as the rafters were being rescued from the bridge pilings, releases from Nimbus Dam were flowing at more than 15,300 cubic feet per second.

Last year at this time, the releases were flowing at less than 3,400 CFS.

With the water running so fast, Sacramento County parks officials are warning people of the danger. Within hours of Monday’s rescue of the rafters, the regional parks department’s Twitter account tweeted this reminder: “The American River continues to run high, fast & very cold. RAFTING & SWIMMING ARE STRONGLY DISCOURAGED. If you do, WEAR A LIFE VEST.”

With the higher water, many beaches will remain submerged, leading to rivergoers seeking out new spots for recreation and creating more work for DART and firefighting rescue teams.

“We’re anticipating less beach area,” Mohamed said. “When that happens, people will find somewhere else to go, which means we will have to broaden our area of impact.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam