El Niño rains added fuel to California's upcoming fire season, experts say

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As he drove east of Fresno to the next Wildfire Awareness Week event in Kern County on Wednesday, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott turned his gaze toward the browning landscape. “I’m looking at grass that’s 2 feet tall easily, and it’s already dead,” Pimlott said.

Meanwhile, far away in the southern and central Sierra Nevada, foliage on 29 million trees infested with bark beetles are turning orange and red and dying, with countless more stretching north toward Sacramento expected to meet a similar fate over the next year.

Thanks to El Niño rains and a fifth year of drought, experts say, California’s landscape has provided enough water to spring up new vegetation to ignite while swaths of forest continued to dry out, priming them to burn and creating a dangerous mix that state and federal firefighters will have to contend with this year.

“One of the guys says this is the most grass they’ve seen in this area in many years. It’s thick and getting taller and we had rain today,” said Amy Head, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who was also in Fresno on Wednesday. “Between just a normal everyday fire season, the increased grass crop, the bark beetles, it could be a very busy fire season.”

In heavy doses, rain can feed trees precious moisture that they will turn into pitch, or a kind of sap, which they in turn use to plug the tiny burrows that bark beetles dig to bury their eggs, Head said.

The precipitation can wet chaparral — which burns extremely hot in Southern California’s forests — and delay the wildfire season. But Southern California hasn’t experienced the months of frequent storms like the northern half of the state.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by a group of federal agencies, much of the central and southern Sierra Nevada remain in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the worst categories possible. The northern half of the state has seen marked improvements at the same time.

Perris Lake and Castaic Lake were at 36% and 54%, respectively, of their historical average for this time of year Wednesday, according to the Department of Water Resources.

In the San Bernardino National Forest, grass is sprouting up on south-facing hillsides and lining highways in the Inland Empire and El Cajon Pass, said Dan O’Connor, a forest, fuels and prevention officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

“That puts us on edge,” O’Connor said. “The grass will cure the earliest and it takes the least amount of effort to get going.”

The rain up north, it turns out, may not have eliminated the elevated fire danger so much as delayed it compared with previous years, officials said. Two of California’s biggest reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville lakes in Northern California, were nearly full and above their historical average.

There have been fewer fires and they have burned less acreage this year than last year or the previous five years on average, Cal Fire reported. Through April 30, there have been only 609 fires reported on state land that have burned a total of about 600 acres. In 2015, it was more than 900 fires that had burned more than 9,200 acres by April 30.

“We’ve been able to reduce the fire danger, but that’s going to change. We’re getting into the warmer months,” Pimlott said.

Cal Fire's spokeswoman Head was equally cautious.

“This year was good, it was steady little storms not stacked up,” Head said. “But it really did grow a pretty thick and tall grass crop, more than we’ve seen in the last few years. We’ll basically have more lighter, flashy fuels along roadsides once they dry out.”

She said bark beetles have affected trees in nearly every county in California, including the rain-soaked north.

“The trees have been so stressed for so many years… They’re not going to be able to recover from just this one season of a little bit of rain,” she said.

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