This week, over a quarter of a million people were without power as powerful Santa Ana winds roared through parts of Central and Southern California. The winds were possibly the strongest that the state has seen in 20 years.
Coming off the worst wildfire season in history and in the midst of a dry winter, parts of the Santa Cruz mountains where the CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned over the summer reignited and over a hundred residents were evacuated.
A warming climate has caused wildfire season, which typically peaks in late summer, to become a year-round affair in recent years. Wildfires in January just may be the new normal. Here’s what the unusual weather means and what it might portend for the coming months.
This season has been unusually dry. Scientists at U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography looked at how much precipitation has fallen and how much is likely to fall in the coming months. At the beginning of January, they found that the odds of California reaching normal precipitation this year were only about 20 percent.
“If we miss the window of December or January, it can really set us back,” said F. Martin Ralph, director of the university’s Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes.
As Dr. Ralph explained, Western states get a chunk of their rain for the year in just a few big storms. Those storms, called atmospheric rivers, carry huge amounts of water from the ocean into inland areas.
The size and frequency of atmospheric rivers make the difference between what will be a normal season or one filled with catastrophic drought or flooding.
“The top storms, how they vary from year to year largely determines whether or not we’re in drought or flood,” Dr. Ralph said.
Right now, we are in need of one of these large storms.
Dr. Ralph said that there could be substantial atmospheric river activity in the coming days and weeks, especially for the northern parts of the state.
Climate change is making extreme weather patterns even more extreme. California has a climate characterized by alternating extremes — drought and floods. And it is already one of the most flood-prone states in the country in spite of also being one of the driest.
Climate models for the years ahead show that the number of dry days will increase but also, the top wettest days each year will become even wetter.
“The wettest of wet days. Well, those are the days of great floods,” Dr. Ralph said.
And while heavy rains during a drought are welcome, we should be careful what we wish for. Floods brought on by atmospheric rivers can be devastating. Dr. Ralph found that in a 40-year period, 84 percent of all flood damage in the Western U.S. came from atmospheric river events, amounting to billions of dollars in damage.
As each week passes without the arrival of major storms, the risk for wildfires increase. “If it ends up being we don’t get any rain in March or April in Southern California that’s a serious problem,” Dr. Ralph said.
Another thing that can affect the outlook for wildfires this year is how spread out the storms are — if they are distributed across a long rainy season or concentrated in just a few closely timed events.
Less rain makes for increased fire risk, but if the rainy periods fall closer to the start of wildfire season, that could be good.
“If we get even a bit less than normal rain, but there’s sort of a wet period later in the spring, it can help suppress the wildfire risk farther into the summer than normal,” Dr. Ralph said.
But right now, there’s a more immediate need for a good soaking.
“Every week that goes by, if we don’t get rain and snow, it’ll be harder and harder to catch up,” he said.
Here’s what else to know today
Imagine having a dance party with friends, hugging a relative or enjoying a meal in a restaurant again. It could, experts say, help you get out of a funk.
My colleague Tariro Mzezewa wrote about how imagining a better future helps humans cope with difficult times.
Jordan Firstman, a television writer who has found some celebrity this year doing impersonations on Instagram, is fantasizing about a day that kicks off with “a 20-person breakfast at a restaurant, indoors,” followed by an orgy, dinner, live theater, a warehouse party and clubbing “until 6 a.m.,” he said. “Then we’ll go see ‘Wicked’ at 8 a.m. because we didn’t get enough theater the night before. We want more theater.”
What’s your fantasy for when the pandemic is over, whenever that day might be?
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.