Weather Watch

Central Coast could be facing its most challenging fire season

A firefighter knocks down flames during the Sherpa Fire that burned nearly 7,500 acres in western Santa Barbara County. The fire started on June 15 and as of Saturday firefighters expect to remain on scene for several more weeks to put out hot spots, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
A firefighter knocks down flames during the Sherpa Fire that burned nearly 7,500 acres in western Santa Barbara County. The fire started on June 15 and as of Saturday firefighters expect to remain on scene for several more weeks to put out hot spots, according to the U.S. Forest Service. AP

So far this year, San Luis Obispo County has been spared a major wildfire, but many people have vivid memories of years past, including the Highway 41 Fire.

Back in 1994, this devastating fire raged east and south of Atascadero and burned 49,000 acres, destroying 42 homes and threatening 100 more in San Luis Obispo. The fire shut down two highways, caused massive power outages and resulted in $10 million in damage.

But memories of that fire may pale in comparison to what could lie ahead. This year’s fire season may be the most challenging in history for firefighters.

Here’s why: Last year’s El Niño produced the greatest amount of rain along the Central Coast since the 2010 rain season. Unlike the previous four years, when the hills struggled to turn green in the winter, this year saw huge amounts of grasses and other seasonal vegetation that turned our hills to beautiful hues of brown and gold this spring.

Unfortunately, this abundant foliage is fuel for wildfires.

To make matters worse, the Climate Prediction Center forecasts above normal temperatures throughout the western part of the United States through September. In fact, this June was the warmest on record in Paso Robles with an average temperature of 74.2 degrees, breaking the previous record of 74 degrees set in 1981. San Luis Obispo was nearly 5 degrees above average in June.

The higher temperatures lower vegetation moisture levels, which means they can start to burn more quickly and at lower temperatures.

Scott Jalbert, our new Cal Fire chief in San Luis Obispo, told me: “We are going into our fifth year of drought and conditions are worse off than we’ve seen in many decades. The rain we did receive caused significant increase in grasses and other vegetation but wasn’t enough to prevent unprecedented tree die-off caused by lack of water and insect infestation.”

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that since 2010, an estimated 66 million trees have died in California forestland. That number is up from 29 million dead trees in 2015 and 3.3 million in 2014. Tree mortality exceeds 50 percent in parts of the state.

All of these ingredients are coming together like a perfect storm to produce a fierce fire season. To assist Cal Fire and municipal fire departments, PG&E has begun daily aerial fire patrols across Northern and Central California, including the Central Coast, seven days a week. These crews primarily fly during the afternoon hours when wildfires are most likely to ignite.

In addition to its daily aerial fire patrols, PG&E is removing dead or dying trees that could fall into lines and spark a fire. PG&E’s vegetation management group has quadrupled the number of crews that look for and clear dying and dead trees this year. The company also has stepped up its program to pretreat utility poles with fire retardant to protect them from flames and prevent them from becoming road debris that could block firefighters from reaching fires.

The PG&E Meteorology Services department is using high-resolution weather forecast data from the PG&E Operational Mesoscale Modeling System, along with the National Fire Danger Rating System, to produce daily fire danger ratings for the PG&E service area, which encompasses most of Northern and Central California. PG&E also provides funding to Fire Safe Councils for 45 shovel-ready fuel-reduction projects in 20 counties.

“Wildfires are a huge risk in San Luis Obispo County — a threat that will only intensify as the ongoing drought continues to impact our region,” said Pat Mullen, PG&E’s local division director. “PG&E is proud to help our customers prevent wildfires in the area and protect critical infrastructure. We live and work in this community, and there’s nothing more important to us than the safety of local residents.”

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If you would like to participate in a “Weather Watchers” tour of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and its lands that will include atmospheric and oceanographic instrumentation used for weather forecasting and other interesting weather information, please email me at pgeweather@pge.com to register.

The tour, offered July 20, will start at 9 a.m. at the PG&E Energy Education Center, 6588 Ontario Road in San Luis Obispo. It will finish by noon.

John Lindsey is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John for weather and other useful information.

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