KNP Complex firefighters shelter in place amid bomb cyclone. Could storm extinguish wildfire?

25 October 2021

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USA – An atmospheric river buffeted the Sierra Nevada with several inches of rain and feet of snow on Monday, sidelining firefighters who were forced to shelter in place to avoid potential mudslides and floods while battling the KNP Complex and Windy fires.

The massive storm system could be a mixed blessing for fire managers hoping that the torrential downpour will extinguish flames lingering in the heaviest and longest-burning fuels.

“The best-case scenario, in a perfect world, is the rain would be able to get into those [heavy fuels] and really help us [with] putting out the fire, putting out the heat,” said Kimberly Kashlak, fire information officer, California Incident Management Team 12.

But crews are also preparing for the worst-case scenario: Dangerous mudslides and flooding that can ravage freshly burned areas lacking the soil and tree cover to absorb the influx of moisture.

In Fresno County, the entirety of the Creek Fire burn scar was put on evacuation notice due to the high risk of mudslides, debris flows, and flooding. Monday’s storm is the largest to hit the area since the fire was contained in December 2020.

“The areas damaged by the Creek Fire in 2020 continue to be the focus of a potential weather-made disaster,” the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office stated ahead of the storm’s arrival.

As of Monday afternoon, it’s too early to tell the effects the storm will have on the two wildfires burning in Tulare County, fire managers said. Conditions on the ground will have to improve before it is safe for firefighters to get a lay of the land.

“Anytime we get moisture, it’s a good thing,” Kashlak said. “But you have to get the right amount of moisture at the right time. Otherwise, it’s just going to runoff.”

“We’re hoping this nice, steady rain is gonna hold up,” she said. “It’s definitely going to help with those heavy fuels.”

Snow had already begun to fall at higher elevations in Sequoia National Park, including the world-famous Grant Grove, rangers said.

The southern Sierra is projected to receive up to 18 inches of snow at higher elevations and 3 inches of rain at lower elevations, according to the National Weather Service Hanford office.

The Valley floor was also heavily impacted by the storm system, with areas of Visalia experiencing flooding and power outages.

It’s not known whether the atmospheric river will put an end to California’s wildfire season. Santa Ana winds could potentially cause problems for Southern California through November, forecasters said.

However, according to federal monitors, the weather has been a boon to the parched Sierra, which is suffering an exceptional drought.

“This [storm] is certainly helping the firefighting efforts. For the most part, the active fires will greatly benefit from this precipitation,” said Chris Foltz, an NWS meteorologist assigned to the Windy Fire.

The Windy Fire is burning on the Tule River Indian Reservation and Sequoia National Forest. The blaze had been 92% contained before the arrival of this week’s storms.

No mudslides had affected burned areas, Foltz said, cautioning that rain was still falling.

The KNP Complex ignited on Sept. 9 and has burned more than 88,000 acres across Sequoia National Park and forest. The blaze has threatened or killed dozens of giant sequoia trees, which only grow in the western Sierra.

Recently, firefighters have made significant progress in containing the blaze, aided by cooler temperatures and wetter conditions.

The KNP Complex was 63% contained on Monday.

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks, and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.

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