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New wildfires coming to Northern California, warns fire agency

National Interagency Fire Center warns that explosive grass growth has primed the Bay Area for burns

Town Of Paradise Wiped Out By The Camp Wildfire Continues Long Struggle To Rebuild
The town of Paradise in February, still devastated by 2018’s wildfires.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A new wave of wildfires will most likely hit Northern California in 2019, potentially worse than the devastating 2017 and 2018 firestorms, thanks in part to tremendous growth in native grasses that will dry out (“cure”) in the coming months and create a trove of combustible materials throughout the summer.

That’s the assessment of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), a Boise-based organization that combines eight different anti-fire apparatuses.

The NIFC released its latest National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook this week, predicting danger ahead for the Bay Area and all of Northern California.

Some of the agency’s potentially dire conclusions include:

  • The Bay Area should expect significant increased fire danger this summer: “Above Normal significant fire potential is expected across the mountains and forests surrounding the Bay Area and in the Sacramento Valley and surrounding foothills June through August. The above normal fire potential will expand north to the Oregon state line in August.”
  • All of the recent rain will help put off fire risk at higher elevations: “Unlike most years, there could be a delayed start to the season in the higher, timbered elevation s due to preexisting weather conditions and slower than average snowpack melting rates.”
  • However, that will contribute to greater risk in the long run due to extra vegetation growth: “Temperatures were cooler than average in early April, but warmer and drier than average weather in place since the middle of April has allowed led to robust growth of fine fuels and brush at elevations below 3,000 ft. [...] This will allow an already heavier than average fine fuel crop to increase.”
  • Unusual snowfalls have also generated new fire hazards in Northern California: “In February [there was] a significant heavy snow event in the northern Sacramento Valley. The event caused extensive damage to plants and trees of all sizes, leading to a large amount of dead and down fuels that will enhance the potential of significant wildfires starting in June.”

In February, the Forest Service reported that it had identified an additional 18 million dead trees throughout the state over the past 18 months.

“Over 147 million trees have died across 9.7 million acres of federal, state, local and private lands in California since the drought began in 2010,” according to Cal Fire, noting that, although the drought is over, inadequate rains from previous years can continue to affect tree populations.

Cal Fire’s latest Community Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation report, also released in February, warns that “climate change, an epidemic of dead and dying trees, and the proliferation of new homes in the wildland urban interface magnify the threat and place substantially more people and property at risk than in preceding decades.

“More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat, extending that risk over half the state,” the report adds.

Low-income households, people with disabilities, people over the age of 65 and children less than five years old, Californians who speak little or no English, and residents without cars—potentially critical to escaping an evacuation zone, particularly in rural areas—are all particularly at risk from wildfires, says Cal Fire.

Presently, the state fire agency reports only five active wildfires across the state, all of them fully contained as of May 1.