Authorities are bracing for more wildfires as a federal climate agency released a forecast last week showing much of California will probably have a drier than normal winter together with above-average temperatures.
“They’re saying that we’ll get below-normal rainfall under the best scenario,” Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said on Thursday. Seto spoke just hours after the Climate Prediction Center put out its latest forecast ruling out a La Niña winter. La Niña systems typically make for cooler than normal temperatures across the region.
“They’re now saying that we’ll likely get neither an El Niño or La Niña,” Seto said, “meaning conditions will be neutral.”
During a La Niña winter, surface sea temperatures across much of the Pacific Ocean tend to be cooler than normal, lowering temperatures across the globe.
The latest forecast comes as meteorologists had expected more rain for the region during the 2015-16 winter season because of an unusually strong El Niño over the Pacific. Instead, the rain season turned out to be a bust, with Southern California receiving less than normal precipitation.
Another dry Southern California winter is the last thing firefighters had hoped for.
Fuel moisture levels in Ventura County already are critically low, greatly increasing the likelihood of wildfires, said Capt. Mike Lindbery, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.
“There’s a potential for large wildfires even with winter coming because the fuel is so dry,” Lindbery said. “This danger will continue unless we get some rain.”
Andrew Madsen, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest, sounded a similar note.
“Adding to the danger are Santa Ana winds, which typically occur from October to April,” Seto said.
“As California enters what appears to be its sixth year of drought, the hot dry winds will increase the likelihood of fires even more in the months to come,” Seto said.
This year’s wildfires include the Sherpa Fire, which burned close to 7,500 acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara from June 15 to July 12. Then there was the Rey Fire in Santa Barbara County, which began Aug. 18 and burned more than 32,000 acres.
Most recently, firefighters have been on scene of the Soberanes Fire on the northern end of the Los Padres National Forest. The fire has so far burned more than 100,000 acres since starting on July 22, with some of it burning inside the Los Padres.
The fires come as Los Padres officials imposed a series of restrictions on campers this summer, including banning wood and charcoal fires throughout much of the 1.7 million-acre forest. Officials also restricted the use of portable stoves and lanterns powered by gas, jellied petroleum or pressurized liquid fuel outside of designated campfire sites to only those with a valid California campfire permit.
The restrictions come as the long drought has left much of Southern California littered with dead or dying trees.
“Tree mortality is a huge issue not only in Los Padres but across California,” Madsen said.
Workers are having to remove dead or dying trees as the forest service and other agencies have seen their budgets cut, forcing them to do more with less.
Some members of the public have volunteered to help with removing dead or dying trees, Madsen said.
“Some members of the public have brought in their wood chippers, which has helped us,” Madsen said.
“The drought and higher temperatures now mean that big fires can occur at any time,” Madsen said.
“A year-round fire season has become the new normal.”