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A Dry Winter In California Could Lead To Worse Than Average Wildfire Season, Experts Warn

California Department of Water Resource

Correction: We have corrected the headline for this story to show predictions for the 2021 wildfire season are for potentially worse than average conditions, not similar to 2020.

Very little rain and snow are expected across California over the next few weeks, and what the clouds have dropped in the Sierra Nevada so far is about half of average for this time of year.

That has scientists worried California is headed not only for prolonged drought, but a fire season similar to or worse than the one that devastated the state in 2020.  “We're seeing these fires become more and more disruptive and produce more and more smoke that more and more people breathe,” says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “It's not the only reason why this matters. But I think it's definitely something to be thinking about, as we head into what could be another dry year in California.”

Swain says a dry ridge of pressure is pushing storms north of the state. In large part it’s brought on by La Niña, a weather pattern that often results in dry, cold winters. If La Niña doesn’t weaken and storms don’t drench the state this winter, Swain says California will likely be entering a multi-year drought within a decade of the last one. And he says droughts lead to water scarcity and very active wildfire seasons.

“A lot of California already qualifies as being in a severe drought based on what happened with the dry winter last year, then the very hot summer and autumn, which really dried out the landscape even more,” he said. “Now, we're having another dry winter.”

He says dry weather is normal for Southern California during the winter, but not so much for the rest of the state. 

“To have it sort of be the dominant weather anywhere in California this time of year is unusual,” he said.

California isn’t alone in experiencing drought or the scarcity of water or wildfires that follow it. East of the state, both the Great Basin and the Colorado River Basin are experiencing the worst drought on record. 

“Which is saying a lot” according to Swain, because the last multi-year drought was extremely severe in those regions.

At the moment, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at about 52% of average for this time of year, but with little precipitation in the forecast anywhere in California, Swain expects it to start a downward trend. That’s because the forecast isn’t just supposed to be dry. He says Northern California could witness 70 degree days in the coming weeks.

Over the next two to three weeks it will likely fall much farther behind,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised to see a snowpack heading into the end of January, that was only around a third of average.”

To make any real dent in the meager water year will take storm after storm of heavy rain and snow in the Sierra Nevada, says Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Sacramento office. 

“We really need something more like four, five, or six inches of precipitation over the mountains to really push the needle,” he said. 

But both scientists say there’s a glimmer of hope: It’s still unknown how much precipitation the second half of winter will bring. At this point a miracle March or marvelous May are unlikely, but would be welcomed. 

“What we'd like to have … are atmospheric rivers,” he said. “They can drop five to 10 inches of rain over the mountains in just a few days, and we haven't had a lot of those systems come in this year.”