The title to the classic 1970s hit “It Never Rains in Southern California” has nothing to do with climate change or even precipitation for that matter, but it couldn’t be more appropriate for the massive drought hitting the entire state this spring.
The drought has intensified, with the worst level now covering 14% of the state, up from 5% last week.
“Moving into dry season, California is expecting drought impacts to intensify during the summer months,” this week’s US Drought Monitor summary explains.
The winter rain and snow were again well below average and the long-term water deficit over the West is creating the potential for another devastating wildfire season.
“There’s no sugar coating it. It looks like fire season 2021 is going to be a rough one in California, and throughout much of the West, unfortunately,” warns Daniel Swain, climate scientist for UCLA and The Nature Conservancy.
“A combination of factors – including short-term severe to extreme drought and long-term climate change – are in alignment for yet another year of exceptionally high risk across much of California’s potentially flammable landscapes,” Swain says.
Fire has now become a way of life in the Western states, just like severe weather is in the Plains. It is no longer if it occurs, but when, where and how bad.
The 2020 fire season was the worst in the state’s history and 2021 could potentially be worse.
As of May 5, California has already seen seven times the amount of acres burned, compared to the same time frame last year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom this week issued an emergency declaration for much of the state to deal with the drought crisis.
The declaration directs state agencies to take action to increase drought resilience, modify reservoir releases to conserve water, and allows for more flexible water transfers between rights holders.
Swain explains why this year’s fire season is so concerning:
Some aspects of fire season are predictable, such as the state of the vegetation leading into it and temperature projections for the summer to come. Both of those point in the direction of an elevated risk.
Since vegetation conditions are currently setting new records for dryness and flammability, and because the seasonal outlook continues to call for a warmer than average summer/autumn across most of California, it’s easy to see why many folks are concerned.
“Each year is unique. Drought helps set the stage,” says Amanda Sheffield with the federal National Integrated Drought Information System.
Not enough snow to provide adequate water
“California and many parts of the West rely on snowpack for water resources. The poor snowpack, plus rapid spring snow melt has left areas of the West with not just low snow water equivalent (SWE) compared to normal for this date, but almost no SWE at all, including California at just 6% of normal and the Lower Colorado at just 4% of normal,” says Sheffield, the California-Nevada regional drought information coordinator with the agency.
“There’s essentially no snowpack left in the mountains,” confirms Swain. “What’s amazing to me as a climate scientist is to see the snow melt occur and then to see the rivers lakes and steams not responding. The soil under the snow is so dry that there is no runoff.”
“This is one of the reasons why I think the highest increase in risk for wildfires will probably be in the forests. The risk of big true forest fires is going to be especially elevated in California,” says Swain. He predicts the Sierra Nevada, the foothills ringing the Central Valley and the coastal forests including the redwoods are very much at risk.