A fire in January? Californians have, tragically, seen that before.
But a fire in January after months of record-breaking rain? That’s far more unsettling.
A blaze that erupted on the Central Coast over the weekend seemed to stun even those intimately familiar with California’s ongoing drought and its increasingly year-round fire season. The National Weather Service’s Bay Area office called the fast-moving fire near Big Sur “surreal,” given the recent storms.
California saw heavy rainfall in the final three months of 2021, leading many to believe that the threat of fire would lessen for at least the next few months. But the latest blaze revealed a harsh reality: The drought has become so severe that even a series of torrential storms wasn’t enough to end it.
The land in many parts of the state remains extremely parched and, after an unusually dry January, apparently ready to burn.
“Anecdotally, it seems as though the long-term drought is acting like a chronic illness where even recent rains” and cold winter weather “isn’t helping to keep fires from developing,” the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office said on Twitter.
On Friday night, the brush fire near Big Sur began to grow, forcing hundreds in Carmel-by-the-Sea to evacuate their homes. At its largest over the weekend, the blaze reached about 1,000 acres and threatened more than 200 homes and buildings. By Monday morning, it was 33% contained, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency.
George Nuñez, a captain with Cal Fire, said that he had to ask other agencies to help fight the blaze because it hit during the offseason.
Typically, his unit has 17 fully staffed fire engines, he said. But that number was reduced to two when fire season officially ended in early January, he said.
“Everybody says that California has a year-round fire season,” Nunez told The New York Times. “And this is just part of it.”
Last year, California endured a brutal fire season triggered by unusually high temperatures and severe drought conditions. By the end of 2021, 2.6 million acres had burned across the state, 1 million more the annual average from the past five years, according to Cal Fire.
Almost all of last year’s destruction happened before a series of storms arrived in October and dumped water across the state. Another series of downpours in December made California seem even safer from fire.
Before the storms, 88% of California was considered in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe designations. Now, 1% of the state falls into those categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
But apparently the improvement wasn’t enough to stop fires altogether. Even after the storms, 99% of California remains in some level of drought.
And January, usually one of the wettest months of the year, has been unseasonably dry. For the past three weeks, plants and soil have been losing much of the moisture they absorbed in late 2021.
So when humidity levels dropped Friday and winds began roaring at up to 50 mph near Big Sur, dangerous fire conditions were set.
“It’s unusual to have fire this size here on the coast at the end of January,” Cecile Juliette, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The Associated Press. “The fact that we had a fire this size is of great concern.”