Weather Watch

Fire season could be fierce with plenty of vegetation to feed flames

Special to The TribuneMay 3, 2014 

Daniel Gillies and Michael Green of SpaceX get ready to launch a weather balloon at the Balloon Fest in Paso Robles on Saturday.

JOHN LINDSEY

The rains of February turned the coastal mountains and valleys of San Luis Obispo County to emerald green. The additional rains of March and April further boosted the amount of grasses and other vegetation that grew. As I attended a Balloon Fest at Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles on Saturday, I was surprised to see how much vegetation is now covering the hills.

However, the return of the spring winds combined with record-breaking temperatures the county experienced at the end of April will turn our mountains to golden hues of brown in a flash of an eye. It also will increase the risk of wildfires and challenge our firefighters.

So far, this rain season — which runs from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014 — Cal Poly, home of climatology for San Luis Obispo, has recorded around 11 inches of rain.

Normally, about 22 inches should have fallen by this time. In the North County, Paso Robles has recorded 6 inches of precipitation or about 51 percent of normal. Along the beaches, PG&E’s Diablo Canyon power plant has also recorded around 6 inches of rain, which is on track to be the driest rainfall season on record at that location.

As of Friday, the last of the once-a-month snow pack surveys for the season was only at 18 percent of normal. Just a month earlier it was 32 percent. Dry indeed. Not only has it been abnormally dry this rain season, but the last three seasons have experienced well below average precipitation.

As the state heads into summer, the latest guidance from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center (CPD) is calling for “above normal temperatures” for all of California through July. Combined with prolonged drought and the abundant grasses and other vegetation that sprouted and grew in February through April could make this fire season one of worst ever seen in the state.

In fact, Robert Lewin, Cal Fire chief for San Luis Obispo County, told me “The unseasonably warm temperatures and windy weather this winter, combined with three years of drought, has made the wildlands extremely volatile to fire. This is the first time in my career that we have a fire season that did not end and just kept going through the winter and now into the summer.”

These dire conditions will greatly exasperate the challenge that Cal Fire and other fire departments face to carry out their mission of the protection of life, property and natural resources. “Our best hope is to prevent ignitions and make sure folks maintain a defensible space around their homes.” Chief Lewin said.

Residents are encouraged to be vigilant and avoid activities that could spark unwanted fires, such as mowing dry vegetation during warm, dry or windy weather. “Our men and women are ready, our aircraft and firefighting equipment is ready, we now need the public to get ready.” Chief Lewin went on to say.

To help prepare for this fire season, Cal Fire has an informative website.

Reminder: Tip-A-Cop is next week and it's not too late to buy a table — so many great dinners happening in just about every community in SLO County! And all the proceeds go to Special Olympics of SLO County. For more information, visit www.sosc.org/slocountytipacops

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. He is president of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com. You can also followed him on twitter.com/pge_john

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