USA – Winter may have started but fire season is not over yet in Southern California as drought conditions drag on and the forecast calls for Santa Ana winds to return this week.
When it rains in November and December, the dry, gusty winds become less of a factor for fires. But so far, the rain has been a no-show in Ventura County and elsewhere in the region.
The latest maps from U.S. Drought Monitor showed the county in “moderate” drought, up from the least severe stage dubbed “abnormally dry” just a few weeks ago. Nearly all of California – more than 95% of the state – landed either in moderate, severe or extreme stages of drought.
“Here we are in the winter solstice, and we’re still using sunscreen, not our umbrellas. That’s not a good sign,” said climatologist William Patzert on Monday.
The county both ended 2019-20 water year, which runs from October through September, and started the 2020-21 year below normal. Water supplies are dropping and the Ventura County Fire Department says brush has stayed critically dry, increasing the risk of dangerous wildfires.
Moisture levels in vegetation around the county averaged 59%, according to Dec. 15 samples tested by county fire. That is below the critical mark – when brush catches fire easier and flames burn faster and farther – and well below the 74% historical average for this time year.
“We usually get a little bit of rain late November, early December, which starts to bring it back up,” Capt. Kenneth VanWig said. “But this year, we just haven’t had that.”
A dry eight months
October and November may mark the start of the local rainy season but aren’t normally Ventura County’s wettest months. Without early rainfall, however, there’s little to blunt the impact of the seasonal winds.
Rainy season starting later and ending earlier has been a pattern in recent years, but this is sort of exceptional, said Patzert, formerly with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Essentially, we’ve gone eight months with almost no rain and that doesn’t indicate a good forecast for what remains of the coming winter,” he said, calling it “an exceptionally” slow start.
In much of Ventura County – and elsewhere in Southern California – areas have only had a few showers since May. So far, less than a quarter-inch of rainfall has been recorded in most of the county, according to the Ventura County Watershed Protection District. Normal rainfall this time of year runs from 3 to 4 ½ inches.
A bit of a reprieve may be on the way. The National Weather Service reported a 40% chance of some rain in the county starting Sunday. If that happens, it could mean as much as a half-inch of rainfall, according to meteorologist David Sweet.
But that likely won’t be enough to end concerns about fires.
Edison reported it would be monitoring circuits in Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties so it could shut off power to prevent its equipment from sparking a fire.
The northeast winds are expected to start overnight Tuesday into Wednesday, particularly in eastern parts of the county, said Sweet, with the National Weather Service’s Oxnard office. Gusts could reach 55 mph on Wednesday and Thursday.
In western Ventura County, the forecast calls for gusts up to 45 mph Wednesday before dropping a bit on Thursday.
Humidity levels are expected to drop to single digits and the agency issued a red flag warning of critical fire weather from Wednesday morning through noon Thursday.