USA – California’s drought, already rated “severe” to “extreme” for most of the state, is expected to worsen throughout the summer, combining with higher-than-average temperatures and dry vegetation to steadily increase the risk of wildfires, according to the interagency National Integrated Drought Information System
That assessment comes in the wake of the state’s worst wildfire season on record, 2020, which saw five of California’s six largest recorded infernos and extended the trend of wildfire seasons here growing longer and more intense.
There have been 2,436 wildfires in California so far this year, charring 14,717 acres, easily outpacing the 1,554 fires that burned 2,617 acres through May 18, 2020, according to Cal Fire.
California is hardly alone, with much of the Southwest in the second year of drought — and several states are experiencing even worse conditions.
“It really stands out how rapidly this drought has developed and intensified,” said Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center during a Monday, May 24 webinar hosted by the National Integrated Drought Information Center. The drought information center is led by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In May 2020, 39% of the Western United States experienced drought; today, 83% of the West — including all of California — is under drought conditions, Fuchs said. At this time last year, none of the area had “exceptional” drought — a level that typically occurs once or twice every 100 years. This year, 38% of the West is experiencing exceptional drought.
State forecast worsening
California will find little consolation in the fact that other states have it worse. While the 12-month period from April 2020 through May was the driest on record in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, the same period was California’s second driest.
Meanwhile, all of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah will have above-normal chances of wildfires by June, while California’s high-risk areas for the month will be mostly in the northern part of the state. However, fire danger is expected to spread to much of the western side of the state — including in Southern California — as summer progresses, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Most of Los Angeles County is already experiencing “extreme” drought intensity, a level that normally occurs three to five times every 100 years. Orange County is currently under “severe” drought conditions, which typically occur six to 10 times in a century. The Inland Empire has a combination of extreme and severe drought levels.
Nonetheless, Southern California is in better shape than the rest of the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 10 announced he was expanding his declaration of drought to include 41 of the state’s 58 counties, all them in central and northern California.
Southern California’s reservoirs reflect the geographical difference, having yet to fall below historic levels, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. However, reservoirs in northern California and those fed by the Colorado River are below average levels, which could affect water supplies imported to Southern California.
The 2012-2016 drought has left the state better prepared to deal with current conditions. Water consumption is down and drought-resistant landscapes have become increasingly common. Newsom has noted that cities are using 16% less water than they were at the beginning of the last drought.
But more mitigation remains to be done, both in terms of droughts and wildfires.
Last month, Newsom signed into law a $536 million wildfire-spending package and has proposed another $708 million in his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. He’s also proposed a $5-billion drought and long-term water infrastructure package.