Historically, Southern California's worst wildfires have been fanned in the fall by hot, dry offshore winds known as Santa Anas. Now, drought conditions are so severe and native foliage so dry that "significant" wildfires are possible, even in the absence of Santa Ana winds and well before fall, according to a consensus of Southland fire agencies.
"We can have a major fire incident with just normal coastal winds," said Daryl Osby, chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "That's really concerning to the firefighters in this region."
By next month, Osby expects fuel moisture levels in foligage to reach critical level throughout LA County, not only inland, but also in coastal Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.
Under a longstanding agreement, LA County Fire will once again be leasing superscooper air tankers, starting September 1, earlier than in pervious years, but not as early as Osby would like. Canada has first call on the superscoopers through August. Osby said the county hopes to discuss ways of bringing the superscoopers sooner.
Fire conditions, drought impact, and plans for mutual aid collaborations were at the top of the agenda of four fire officials from across Southern California who convened at summit in Diamond Bar Monday.
Those who live near the urban-wilderness interface were urged to remove dry brush from their property and follow guidelines for creating "defensible space."
Even there the drought is having an impact.
In years past, covering ground with lush grass has been a widespread technique for creating a fire-resistant buffer zone. Now homeowners are being praised for saving water by letting lawns go brown, but also were cautioned.
"When they die because we're not watering them, we need to maintain them and remove the flammable material from around your home," said Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.
Conditions are especially menacing in the region's forests, where drought-stressed trees are dying at an accelerating pace, creating more potential fuel for blazes, according to Shawna Legarza, regional director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service.
"This year we're really set up to have yet another could-be catastrophic fire season just because we haven't have had the rain and moisture for the fuels," Legarza said.
Last year, surveys of California by the Forest Service found dead trees in some 800,000 acres. This year that has grown to more than 12 million, acording to Legarza.
Adding to the concern is the resurgence of the bark beetle, which bores through the bark and can be fatal to trees under stress. Healthy trees ordinarily defend themselves against the beetles
with sap. But in drought conditions, trees lack the water needed to produce adequate sap amounts.
In some isolated areas, access to water for fire-fighting could be an issue. Except along the coast, air tankers typically refill with water from lakes and reservoirs, most of which have shrunken
significantly during the drought. Both the Forest Service and Cal Fire are doing surveys and mapping to determine what re-filling resources will be avaialable, and how best to protect
communities located in or near forests.
A single fire burning more than 100,000 acres was a rarity when Legarza began her fire-fighting career three decades ago, she recalled. Now they are almost routine.
California experienced record warm and dry conditions the first two months of this year. North of the Owens Valley community of Bishop on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the Round Fire
consumed 40 homes and more than 7,000 acres that ordinarily would have been under snow.
So far this year, California has seen more 1,700 wildfires, which Pimlott said is "far above normal."
During the media briefing that followed the summit, fire officials stressed the importance not only of brush clearance, but also preparation to evacuate quickly in event of emergency.
"Our success is going to depend on a prepared community," said Mark Lorenzen, Fire Chief for Ventura County.