California is on the verge of recording a second straight year of relatively mild wildfire damage, after historic rains put the state on track to avoid the calamities of recent fire seasons.
The state of nearly 40 million people has received 141% of average precipitation over the past 12 months, according to the state Department of Water Resources, ending a two-decade drought.
The year included a long spring and a cool summer that in August produced California's first major hurricane in 84 years, increasing moisture in the trees, brush, grasses and soil and helping prevent the typical outbreak of multiple major fires around Labor Day in early September.
"This is my 47th fire season and this is the first year in a really long time that we haven't had tons of fires on either side of Labor Day," said Tim Chavez, assistant chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The fire season unofficially runs from June to October.
Cal Fire also says the state benefited from a program that nearly doubled the acreage deprived of fuel by prescribed burns from a year ago and the addition of 24 aircraft leased during fire season that improved response times.
"Our biggest compliment is when people never hear about all the fires that we respond to," Cal Fire spokesman Nick Schuler said.
But the grasses and brush that flourished from the rain will build up and dry out when drought conditions inevitably return, said Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Prevention Association.
After disastrous years in 2020 and 2021, wildfire damage this season has been largely limited to the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state.
Cal Fire has reported 5,474 wildfires burning 257,407 acres (104,169 hectares) in 2023, similar to the same period of 2022. The five-year average over the same interval is 6,142 fires and 1.2 million acres burned.
In 2020, more than 8,600 wildfires killed 33 people and consumed 4.3 million acres.
Western Canada and other parts of the United States were less fortunate this year, notably Hawaii, where the Lahaina fire last month killed 97 people, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
Experts warn California's favorable conditions could change quickly, especially in more arid Southern California, where a shift in wind patterns could dry up excess moisture with warm desert air.
"We're really only a prolonged heatwave followed by a windstorm away from having major fires," Chavez said.
UCLA meteorologist Daniel Swain said climate change is going to result in more extreme dry years periodically interspersed with more extreme wet years. He said 2024 could be above average due to the weather pattern El Niño.
"We will see those extreme fire seasons return. But we'll also get these breaks," Swain said on his regular YouTube program last week. "So, a reprieve. I'll take it." (Reporting by Daniel Trotta Editing by Shri Navaratnam)