After a winter with 20% more rain and 56% more snow than we get on average, you'd think Californians would finally feel relieved. The seven-year drought now officially over, our valleys and forests across the state are full of colorful wildflowers and new growth.
And that's exactly what has forest experts concerned as we enter the 2019 wildfire season.
The rain and snow created perfect growing conditions for shrubs, grasses and young trees — highly flammable material that, along with dead wood from previous years, becomes a tinderbox during the dry summer season. A few months from now, we could have a major problem on our hands.
The precipitation we needed so urgently to replenish reservoirs and support our farming industry are, these days, also a recipe for more intense wildfires in California and some other parts of the West.
More rain once meant less fire risk. Not anymore.
Fire has always been a fact of life in the West, but the length and severity of fire season are increasing because of decades of fire suppression that caused fuel to build up on the forest floor, and ever-rising temperatures that are drying out our wildlands.
Historically, a wet winter in California meant a smaller risk of fire the next summer. This is no longer true. A recent study shows that since around 1977, around the same time climate change entered the public discourse, wet winters have done nothing to temper fire seasons here.
They may, in fact, make them worse.
Meanwhile, in arid Arizona, heavier-than-normal rains since last fall recently prompted fire officials to issue warnings to people in or near wildland areas prone to fire. Western Washington, also deemed to be at risk this year after heavy snow packs and rains, has already logged an unusual number of fires.
Lives and property at stake
After the devastating Western wildfires in 2017 and 2018, keeping people and property safe from fire has become a top priority for state officials.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a pre-emptive state of emergency for the next 12 months, and state lawmakers are considering stricter rules for housing near the wildland-urban interface.
Congress, meanwhile, passed a $1.3 trillion, bipartisan spending package that frees up money for the U.S. Forest Service to focus more on proactive forest management to reduce fire risk in California and beyond. All woodland areas in the West are increasingly at risk for fires, as are large swaths of land in eastern United States.
As we implement these programs, we must put a premium on increasing community resilience and preparedness in high-risk areas — by clearing small trees and fuel and building literal fire breaks to keep people and property safer. We must also do a better job with prescribed burns to clear out fuel, and balance such controlled fires with air quality needs.
What you can do to help
As we prepare as best as we can for what could become another intense fire season, we must also keep our pressure on Congress to tackle climate change.
Today's wildfire season is 2.5 months longer than in 1970, and the areas burned in the U.S. are expected to double over the next quarter century. We need to quickly draw down emissions to avoid more catastrophic impacts, and to prioritize measures that reduce our vulnerability to the fires that will continue to occur.