Weather suppresses California fire season

The fall wildfire season is a rite of passage for California firefighters, but it never arrived this year on account of a wet spring, cool summer and damp fall.

There were, in fact, very few wildfires of note anywhere in California this year because of the unusual meteorological conditions known colloquially as crummy weather. That’s a good thing for homeowners and for air quality, but it’s a drag on the pocketbooks of the thousands of seasonal firefighters who were laid off at the beginning of the month.

“We were very fortunate that we really didn’t have very many large and destructive fires,” said Daniel Berlant, the spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “A lot of that had to do with the weird weather we had this year.”

Cal Fire handled 4,743 fires between Jan. 1 and Nov. 6 this year. Those fires burned 28,562 acres. That’s about the same number as last year, when 4,430 fires ignited, but those fires burned 81,109 acres.

The showing of flame this year was downright feeble in comparison with the five-year average of 6,464 fires and 241,433 acres burned a year.

Cal Fire hired 3,100 seasonal firefighters in May and June, about two weeks later than last year. The department officially shifted to winter staffing levels — meaning the seasonal firefighters were laid off — on Nov. 1, two weeks earlier than in previous years, Berlant said.

At least one catastrophic wildfire and often dozens have scorched the state in recent years, but not this year, fire experts said.

Berlant said the El Niño weather pattern that prevailed last winter led to late spring rains. There were a few heat spells in the summer, he said, but the hot temperatures were quickly followed by unseasonably cold weather, even in the normally scorching Sacramento Valley, where midsummer temperatures sometimes dropped to the mid-80s.

An icy La Niña weather pattern — as opposed to the more tropical El Niño — has formed and has brought with it earlier-than-normal rains, according to meteorologists.

“Historically our biggest fires are in October,” Berlant said, “but this year the La Niña brought lots and lots of rain with it.”

Normally in the fall, the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean shifts south, reversing the wind so it blows from land toward the ocean. This phenomenon is referred to in Northern California as Diablo winds and in Southern California as Santa Ana winds. It was just such a condition that helped spread the Oakland hills fire in October 1991.

The Diablo winds never came this year, and that, in combination with several other factors, resulted in a fire season without vim or vigor, said meteorologist Jan Null, a former lead forecaster for the National Weather Service.

“The combination of spring rains extending into the summer, a mild summer and then the early onset of rain in the fall created a sort of cascade effect,” said Null, who is a consultant and adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University. “They are seeing green shoots in Southern California. That portends well for the remainder of the fire season, which I believe is pretty well over now.”

The biggest wildfire of the year broke out in Kern County in July. It scorched 16,442 acres and destroyed 14 structures. A 1,600-acre fire in Kern County that broke out around the same time destroyed 50 buildings near Lake Isabella.