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California may see a year-long season of disasters in 2021

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, there were 97 fires that burned on 22 acres of non-federal land in January 2020. In January 2021, that number triples – to 297 fires that charred 1,171 acres. The January numbers are also three times the five-year average for the month, not a very good omen.

Even with the rain and snow the state experienced last week, the threat of wildfires has not diminished. Wildfire season in the state typically runs from June through September, however, wind and dry conditions have already settled over some parts of the state, said Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.

“So why more fires than last year? It’s really hard to say exactly,” McMorrow said. “But we did have quite a few fires pop a couple of weeks ago, and I think it’s just a good reminder that the majority, 95 percent, of fires are human-caused. And when we have conditions that are just right, such as wind and low humidity it’s easy for those fires to get big enough that the fire department needs to be called.”

Firefighters from multiple agencies have been called in to battle the wildfires in California.

Firefighters from multiple agencies have been called in to battle the wildfires in California.
CAL FIRE San Bernardino Unit

McMorrow also said it is actually too early to predict this year’s wildfire season. But one issue that’s not helping is precipitation, and those numbers are lagging. As of Jan. 26, most of the state was in severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We always welcome a good storm like this, but one week doesn’t make a winter, and one week doesn’t change a dry situation,” David Rizzardo, chief of the hydrology branch at the state’s Department of Water Resources, told the Sacramento Bee.

Concurrent Disasters
Adding to the early start of what could turn out to be another crazy fire season for the Golden State are the mudslides. Generally, torrential rains, associated with hurricanes, are likely to create mudslides in regions where the ground is super-saturated.

However, something similar is true for California, except it is not always associated with water-logged soil. Instead, scientists look at the fire scars and the rains that bring about mudslides.

Mudslides and wildfires are what scientists call concurrent disasters, with one setting the stage for another.

“The heavy rainfall is always a challenge, but when you’ve got the fires and the rainfall within a few months of each other, even a few years of each other, you generate a whole new category of risks,” said Stanford University environmental studies professor Chris Field, who helped author a 2012 United Nations report on climate change and disaster risk around the world.

After the record 2020 fire season, the rains helped in stopping the spread of the fires, but the ground was left barren, almost like a moon-scape. While the rains were certainly welcome, this set the stage for a secondary disaster.

Trees and plants are needed to stabilize the earth. Raging wildfires can remove every bit of ground cover, leaving nothing but the soil in place, and the rain hits the ground uninterrupted by branches and plants instead of being distributed by root systems.

Once the ground starts to slide, it’s difficult to stop, Field said. “It can really build momentum like an avalanche does in snow,” he said, “and start spreading out soil over a very large area.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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