Drought exacerbates fire season threats

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While an official forecast for this summer’s fire season is still several months away, the current situation and weather forecasts are foreboding, according to Tim Chavez, the Riverside County Fire Department’s Beaumont battalion chief. He spoke at the Feb. 13 Mountain Emergency Service Committee meeting.

“Did the 2013 fire season end? No, we’re still staffed for summer,” Chavez said. “It’s happened before so it’s not unprecedented.” As a firefighter, he remembers when 1976 and 1980 seemed like year-round fire seasons.

Since October, Riverside has received less than 10 percent of normal rainfall. Further emphasizing the change, Chavez noted that for the past 12 to 18 months the bulk of local rain has come in the summer. “Is that the new normal — like Arizona and New Mexico?” he asked.

Lack of rain has been most obvious in the past year, but the signs and indicators of drought, which climatologists employ, demonstrate that it began more than four years ago. Cal Fire’s February “Seasonal Outlook” says, “California is currently experiencing its fourth-driest 36-month period on record.”

“Most of the state still remains in severe to extreme drought,” said Alex Tardy, National Weather Service meteorologist.

Plants need moisture to sustain growth but also to protect themselves from the same heat and dryness humans endure. Lack of significant rain in the long term has drastically reduced vegetative moisture. Chavez explained that many native bushes withdraw moisture from branches and limbs and direct it to the roots. Consequently, the dry vegetation increases the risk of fire intensity and spread.

“At Keenwild [Ranger Station], I believe it’s the worse ever,” Chavez noted. “The fuel moisture readings at Anza are way below the worst in the past 10 years.

“At this time of year, we expect the hills to be turning green [with new vegetation], but that’s not happening,” he lamented. “It’s even worse if some rain encourages grasses to appear with all these dry fuels.”

The NWS forecasts, whether for the next two weeks or the next six months, predict below-average rainfall for Southern California.

“I’m sorry, but it will be a tough six to eight months,” Chavez warned.

In other business, Kathleen Henderson, emergency services coordinator for the mountain, said the she would develop a list of goals and objectives for MEMSCOMM and invite speakers to discuss these. For example, future meetings will cover such topics as an updated resource guide, community health issues, the roles of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and the Mile High Radio Club, local insect problems and the annual fall Shake Out exercise.

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