Wildfire season starts months in advance with wildfire outlook


REDDING, Calif. - Every year firefighters rely on meteorologists to help them prepare for wildfire season. That assistance for the Northstate starts with the Fire Outlook, completed by the scientists at the Northern California Geographic Area Coordination Center off Airport Road in Redding.

Meteorologist Stephen Leach said when updating the outlook each month they consider several factors including how much rain we've seen so far in the year. "We always have some reason to worry about fire season here in the Northern California," said Leach.

The fire outlook is similar to the seasonal weather outlook and analyzes the potential of above or below normal fire activity. Leach said only large fires are predicted with the number of fires and their size depending on what zone they're looking at.

"We always have to look at what happened the previous month and say where we were wrong or where we were right, and in that case we change or keep the outlook the same in the near term and then just add to it," said Leach.

For 2017, Leach said the Northstate is in a similar situation to last year, because the region has seen above average rainfall. He adds while that's good news for some areas that could lead to a dangerous condition elsewhere.

"Valley and foothills are the prime areas we're looking at for fire potential but we think through June we'll be quiet. Although there will be some fire activity, we think the initial attack resources will be able to get to those," said Leach.

Leach said heavy rains lead to fire fuels, like grasses and star thistle, to grow taller and dry out during the summer and become fuel for active wildfires. In the mountains where conditions remain wet longer; heavier fuels like trees and brushes will remain wet longer in the year.

"Grasses of course they grow fast, in this kind of weather they get tall and they burn very fast and they burn hot. So what happens is they all cure out, whether it keeps on raining or not, they have a cycle and once they cure out they're susceptible to wildfire," said Leach.

One condition Leach will monitor closely will be how long the wet weather will last. Right now he feels wildfire potential in the valley will remain near normal through July but by the end of August, those grasses will be fully dried out thanks to the heat of the summer.

"So it will be a slow process but that will lead to fairly high potential for wildfires at lower elevations where those grasses exist," said Leach. He added, "The valley, foothills and areas east of the Cascade-Sierra crest over towards Susanville and Alturas, those areas will have a cured out grass crop or fine fuel crop and so we do expect they have the potential for above normal activity August through October."

Another key component Leach will continue to monitor will be the possibility for dry thunderstorms. That can quickly spark a wildfire in the mountains but is harder to predict in a long range forecast. Leach said he'll get a better idea for that situations once they're much closer in the forecast and the pattern starts to develop.

"One thing we don't know much about is how strong and how often the monsoon activity will reach the north ops area. The big thing with the monsoon is lightning and we do have our mountainous areas that are most vulnerable to lightning strikes," said Leach.

Because of the drought, the public has become more interested in both El Niño and La Niña weather patterns and how it affects the west coast. But Leach said when it comes to wildfire season; those patterns don't come into play.

"What we've found over the years is a building El Niño does not affect the current fire year it affects our rainfall patterns once we get to about November, December. Even though we might see an El Niño in the news, and coming chances are increasing, it probably will not affect us this fire season," said Leach.

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