Record drought in western U.S. means elevated fire risk in Southern California

While Southern California has been spared the worst impacts of the drought so far this year, the region’s vulnerability to wildfires and water shortages is expected to grow in the coming months — and decades.

The western United States is experiencing its most extensive drought on record, with 89% of the region in a drought and 57% getting an “extreme” or “exceptional” designation from the National Integrated Drought Information System, a multi-agency entity led by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All of California is listed as having a drought, with the conditions driving an early rash of wildfires. As of July 11, the state recorded 142,000 acres burned, mostly in northern California, compared with 39,000 acres at the same point of last year’s record-breaking wildfire season. The drought officially began in July of 2020, and the 12 months since have been the second driest and fourth warmest on record.

Southern California hasn’t seen the dramatic blazes of northern California this year, but 2020 was a reminder of how susceptible the region is. The Bobcat Fire, which started last September in the San Gabriel Mountains, burned 116,000 acres, and five other fires in the greater Los Angeles area last year each burned more than 10,000 acres.

The dry, hot weather conditions abetting fire danger are likely to grow steadily worse for Southern California and much of the West, while also shrinking the imported water supplies Southern California depends on.

“High temperatures are expected to make droughts more common, longer and more intense in the decades ahead,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad at a Wednesday webinar on the western U.S. drought, hosted by the drought information program.

In the more immediate future, the chance of a dry La Nina weather pattern emerging through the winter is twice as high as usual, which would likely mean less rain than normal for much of California, said Jon Gottschalck of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. If that happens it would continue a two-decade trend of below average rains — a trend that has also included hotter than average temperatures.

Fire, water threats

The elevated risk of fire will continue for much of the West through September, said Nick Nausler, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management. That risk extends to all of Los Angeles and Orange counties and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which are expected to see that higher threat continue through October.

Nausler noted that dry conditions in wildlands are arriving ahead of schedule, contributing the risk of wildfires, and that Southern California’s Santa Ana winds in the fall could help blazes spread rapidly.

When it comes to water supplies, Southern California should fare well until at least next year, according Demetri Polyzos of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which manages water imported from northern California and the Colorado River.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a drought emergency for 50 of the state’s 58 counties, the six Southern California counties served by the Metropolitan Water District have been excluded.

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Major reservoirs elsewhere in the state are well below average levels, but Polyzos said his district began the year with more stored water than ever. That’s been credited to the district’s aggressive program to increase reservoir and aquifer capacity over the past 30 years, and to conservation efforts.

“We’ll be able to handle this year,” he said. “But what we’re worried about is the next year or two years if this continues.”

So even though Southern California has not been included in Newsom’s state of emergency, the water district is once again gearing up conservation and outreach programs.

“We understand where the rest of the state is and what the next year or two could mean,” Polyzos said. “We’re trying to stretch our supply.”

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