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'It's just a matter of time:' Despite fewer wildfires so far in 2019, California braces for another busy fire season

By Mark Puleo, AccuWeather staff writer
July 22, 2019, 10:03:24 AM EDT

On the heels of the United State's two most destructive wildfire seasons on record, firefighters and residents of typically impacted states are breathing a slight sigh of relief in 2019. For now.

While the 2019 wildfire season has been much less active in California through mid-July than last year, there have been numerous notable blazes in other areas of the country, such as in Washington (with the Powerline Fire in Grant County) and Alaska's Hess Creek Fire, located in the north-central part of the state.

Through mid-July 2018, 34,957 large fires were ablaze, igniting 3,554,036 acres of land across the country. Through July 19, 2019, those numbers are down to 23,378 fires and 2,371,397 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This year, it’s the state of Alaska that is dealing with the most intense blazes, as the state’s dry spell fanned 58 fires throughout the state, including the Hess Creek Fire, the nation’s largest so far in 2019.

Alaska Wildfire

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 2, 2019, and provided by the Alaska Division of Forestry, smoke rises from a wildfire in east Anchorage, Alaska. A fast-moving brush fire caused the temporary evacuations of a trailer home park and a science center in east Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon. Smoke from the fire raised a plume over Alaska's largest city that could be seen for miles. (Jason Jordet/Alaska Division of Forestry via AP)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection defines a significant incident as a wildfire that consumes at least 10 acres. According to their totals, the state saw 310 incidents in 2018 (8,054 total fires). In 2019, the state has dealt with just 87 significant incidents with the largest being the Lonoak Fire in Monterey. In 2018, California dealt with 38 different wildfires which burned at least 2,000 acres, 14 of which came before July 20. In 2019, there have been just four such blazes.

An important lesson to be learned from last year, however, is that five of the largest fires in state history all broke out in the second half of the year. The Mendocino Complex Fire, which grew to be the largest fire in state history, and the Carr Fire started in the final week of July. The Camp Fire (which would become the state's deadliest wildfire with 85 deaths), the Hill Fire, and the Woolsey Fire all ignited on November 8.

2017 featured even more wildfires than 2018, but burned fewer acres and destroyed less than half the number of structures (11,642 in 2017 compared to 23,314 in 2018). Before the Mendocino Complex Fire, 2017's Thomas Fire became the state's largest blaze in history upon starting that December and destroyed 1,063 structures. In 2019, thus far, only seven structures have been destroyed due to wildfires, according to CalFire.

California wildfires graphic

Since being ignited by a lightning strike on June 21, the Hess Creek Fire has proven tricky for crews to manage due to smokiness and the vast, dry acreage of central Alaska that has served as ample fuel. Having grown to 170,295 acres as of July 17, the blaze is expected to continue burning for some time. Because of central Alaska's sparse population, the damages and impact of the wildfire have been minimal.

"The majority of the fire is located in an area inaccessible to the general public," Sam Wheeler, Hess Creek Fire Information Officer, told AccuWeather. "Because of its isolation, it doesn't make sense to place firefighters at risk. Agency administrators decided a monitoring approach with extensive point protection efforts around the community of Livengood would be the best and safest approach to engaging this fire."

Wheeler also added that smoky conditions have impeded their monitoring, but recent rainfalls have helped some of that smoke subside.

"A few days ago the smoke was so dense that the helicopter couldn't fly and this affects our ability to complete aerial reconnaissance missions to see what the fire is doing on the ground," she said. "We also ended up moving our incident command post to get firefighters out of the thick smoke so they could have a slight reprieve while sleeping."

Helicopter wildfire

Smoke billows from the Camp Fire as a firefighting helicopter flies near Pulga, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018.

In the contiguous states, arguably the most helpful factor in suppressing wildfires has come from the year’s record-breaking precipitation totals. According to NOAA, the average precipitation across the United States from July 2018 to June 2019 was 37.86 inches, making for the wettest 12-month stretch in history. From January to June, 11 states had a top five-wettest six-month stretch ever.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson with the National Interagency Fire Center, said these precipitation totals and cooler weather has played a role in the lower wildfire totals thus far.

"It’s because of weather. It’s because we had a pretty wet winter, a lot of the western United States still has a decent snowpack and then we had a fairly wet, cool spring throughout most the western United States and that cooler weather has continued into the summer months," Gardetto said. "Overall it has not been as hot as it has in years past, such as in 2018. The issue with 2018 is that we had kind of a wet spring again, but then it right away became hot and dry which caused everything to dry out and when that happens, fire activity quickly follows."

Another contributing factor has been the lower-than-usual temperatures in many locations, which has helped slow the melting of snow. Much to the delight of skiers and firefighters alike, Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, Cali., will stay open until July 28 this year, making for one of the best ski seasons in history. A year ago this month, the Lions Fire was raging just seven miles southwest of Mammoth Lakes, blazing across 4,000 acres of land.

California snow spring

In this Tuesday, May 22, 2019 photo, a late-spring snowstorm fell in Red Cliff, Colo. The unusually cold weather impacted other parts of the West, including California, that were hit by late spring storms. A storm dumped heavy, wet snow in Colorado and Wyoming, canceling flights and snapping newly greened up tree limbs.

While the largest wildfires had historically blazed during summer months, an important lesson to be learned from the past few years is that there is no longer a clear beginning and end to wildfire season.

Gardetto told AccuWeather that this shift in fire activity has put a new strain on firefighters around the country.

"It means that we need to have firefighters working longer months or working later into the year," Gardetto said. "It means a definite change in fire budgets... we're going to see firefighters working later into the fall and sometimes into the winter months. It sometimes means that firefighters have to start earlier in the spring too, because we're seeing it on both ends. We're seeing fires start earlier in the year, like in March and April, in areas where they typically wouldn't start until June and July, and then we're also seeing fire activity into October and November."

Another cause for potential concern is that the extensive rain from the first half of the year could provide lush, flammable fuel for wildfires later this year. Wheeler added that even with some of Alaska's wet conditions, vegetation can dry out quickly and still provide easy fuel.

"Black spruce is one of the most flammable vegetation types in Interior Alaska," Wheeler said. "Feather moss, along with black spruce, respond rapidly to weather conditions. Even in wet conditions or after experiencing a soaking rain, the fuels can dry out quickly and begin moving quickly through the tree crowns."

Gardetto also added that this a particular worry for Southern California because of the grass growth areas have seen after a wet spring.

"The signs usually are when we have a lot of grass growth, like we've had this year," Gardetto said. "If it does continue to stay hot and dry, and we don't get rain, we could be looking at potential for above normal to extreme fire activity. The other issue involved is whether or not lightning storms come through."

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So while the quiet first half of 2019 has been a blessing for Californians in comparison to last year, the blazes elsewhere in the country along with the potential of everything changing with one storm, leaves no room to rest for firefighting teams.

On July 12, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that created a $21 billion fund to help bankrupt the state's investor-owned utilities cover liabilities arising from future wildfires caused by their equipment, according to Reuters. Failures from equipment owned by PG&E Corp have been blamed for the sparking of numerous wildfires, including last year's Camp Fire.

In June, Newsom released a progress report detailing the state's plan for how to deal with climate change and how it makes wildfires 'increasingly dangerous and destructive.'

"Climate change has created a new reailty in the State of California," Newsom said in the report. "It's not a question of 'if' wildfire will strike, but 'when.' Our recent, terrifying history bears that out."

As July comes to a close, thunderstorms from monsoonal activity will increase next week, AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said.

"As the monsoon season begins to ramp up, the risk for dry lightning becomes a serious issue," Buckingham said.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Amy Head, a Cal Fire battalion chief, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When it happens, we’re looking at dry standing fuel ready to burn, and it could be pretty catastrophic.”

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