Rain and snow don’t mean an end to fire danger – yet

Tubbs Fire aftermath, as seen from above

An aerial view of the Tubbs Fire destruction of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Thursday, October 12, 2017.
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An aerial view of the Tubbs Fire destruction of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Thursday, October 12, 2017.

Rain and snowfall that swept over Northern California on Saturday morning hold the promise of relief from the deadly fire season that ravaged the state this year, but fire officials say it is far too early to believe the danger of more wildfires has passed.

“It just continues on,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said of the possibility of more fires in the coming months, despite the start of the fall rains. “Let’s see what the rains bring. Definitely, it will slow things down, but it will not stop.”

So far this year, Cal Fire says it has battled 6,405 blazes that consumed more than 556,090 acres, more than double the acreage that burned through the same time last year. Overall, 1.1 million acres – more than 1,718 square miles – burned between Cal Fire areas and U.S. Forest Service territory in the state. The carnage, as usual, was worst in October, when devastation hit Santa Rosa, Loma Rica and Redwood Valley and other communities and killed at least 43 people.

Although the state’s five-year drought finally ended with last winter’s massive winter storms, California may need several more similar winters to provide enough moisture for trees and vegetation that were so dry this summer that they exploded during wildfires.

“We still need several more winters in a row of quality precipitation to get us back with the vegetation, groundwater supplies and everything else,” McLean said.

Before the drought, firefighters could expect a break during winter months from worrying about wildland blazes, especially in Northern California. Now, however, officials say the danger persists in Northern California, and is a year-round threat in Southern California because of warmer temperatures and Santa Ana winds in that area.

“They’re year-round now,” McLean said. “There’s no fire season there.”

Fire officials note that during the drought, they began to see highly unusual fire events even in mid-winter. In 2014, for example, firefighters had to contend with an 865-acre blaze that started in the Lassen National Forest on Jan. 2, a 333-acre fire that began two days later in Humboldt County and a nearly 2,000-acre fire in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County that began Jan. 16.

A forecast issued last week by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise warned that while most of the nation can begin worrying about winter rather than fire, California remains the exception.

“Latest forecast data suggests that California will remain the focus of periodic bursts in fire activity through November and possibly into December,” the center warned, adding that “above normal significant fire potential” is expected along the state’s entire coast through November and, in Southern California, into December.

“Due to the heat, lack of rain and low relative humidity, dead-fuel moisture is at record low readings for most coastal and intermediate valley areas,” the forecast for Southern California said. “Only the highest elevations of the Sierras from Yosemite National Park northward have seen any significant precipitation this season.”

Saturday’s storms may have begun to put a dent in that, but they are just the beginning.

The National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for the greater Lake Tahoe region until 8 p.m. Saturday night at elevations above 6,000 feet, where about 1 to 2 feet of snow are expected.

Robert Baruffaldi, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said snowfall is expected to increase as the storm pushes south. Donner Pass could see 6 to 8 inches of snow, while Echo Summit is expected to see 4 to 6 inches.

“It’s a good moderate snow storm moving through there,” he said.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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