Firefighters battle a brush fire that destroyed several homes in Laguna Niguel, California, in May 2022.

How California’s recent flooding could set the stage for a dangerous wildfire season

Firefighters battle a brush fire that destroyed several homes in Laguna Niguel, California, in May 2022.
CNN  — 

With vast stretches of desert that give way to towering, snow-capped mountains or the waters of the Pacific Ocean, California’s landscape has always been alluring. But it is this very climate – where dry summers and wet winters provide the perfect conditions for tourism and agriculture – that’s also the state’s vulnerability.

Everything could be dried out one year, then completely drenched the next. For years, historically dry conditions have pushed the West to uncharted territory, triggering never-before-seen water shortages. Then at the end of December and into the early weeks of January, an onslaught of rain and snow finally came, significantly reducing the severity of the drought.

But Californians know the pendulum could abruptly swing the other way again: If moisture doesn’t stick around and heat sets in, experts worry the wintertime rain and snow could prime the landscape for an intense wildfire season.

“The dangerous side to this could be – and we’ve seen this in the past – is we get all this moisture, which increases the amount of spring growth around the state, and then all that growth dries out after we no longer get more moisture and becomes just additional fuels,” Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the University of California, Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, told CNN.

More important than the amount of moisture in the ground right now is what’s there at the end of winter, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“What’s concerning is that now, in a warming climate, even in some of the wet years, we’re seeing significant or even elevated severe fire activity because of how dry and warm it gets in the intervening months,” Swain told CNN.

While it’s too early to tell exactly, he added, the ingredients for a dangerous fire year are slowly coming together.

It’s happened before. Issac Sanchez, CalFire’s battalion chief, said he recalls 2020 being an “unusual year,” with the season starting off with atmospheric river storms that dumped plenty of rain and snow and fueled vegetation growth across California.

But those conditions quickly turned to drought, fueling record-breaking wildfires that burned more than 4 million acres – the worst wildfire season in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We can’t say we’re going to get a lot of fires this year, because we simply don’t know,” Sanchez told CNN. “What we can point to is we can see that the conditions for large destructive fires are going to be there and we have to be prepared when that happens, because we don’t know when or where the fire is going to be.”