California’s Changing Climate Gives New Fuel to Fire Season

California’s changing climate has pushed fire season to new lengths, triggering once-rare winter blackouts.

State utilities cut power to more than 72,000 homes and businesses Tuesday in a preemptive effort to prevent live wires from sparking wildfires as Santa Ana winds threaten to fan flames. Blazes are breaking out nonetheless, including in Santa Cruz County, where two fires are prompting evacuations.

While the Santa Ana winds usually die off by November, they’re increasingly extending further into winter, underscoring how wild California’s weather has become as climate change drives extreme heat and drought. Last year, record temperatures took down large swaths of the state’s power grid and wildfires torched more acreage than ever before.

“We have noticed the fire seasons are getting longer, the weather patterns are being a little bit different,” said Richard Cordova, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, more commonly known as Cal Fire. “We are seeing these conditions hitting us in December and now in January.”

Edison International’s Southern California Edison has shut off about 67,300 customers as gusts of up to 55 miles (88 kilometers) per hour batter the region and the temperature reaches 69 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius). PG&E Corp. has switched off about 5,000 customers in the southern part of the state’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills. Utilities have never warned of a possible shutoff of this size in January.

California’s Changing Climate Gives New Fuel to Fire Season

During a regular winter, public safety power shutoffs “would not be under consideration, but this winter has been anything but normal,” PG&E meteorologists said on the utility’s website. Only 22% of the average rainfall this winter has been in the southern Sierra, they said.

California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment Report, published in 2018, forecast that climate change would lead to longer dry seasons in the state. The report also says that wildfires will burn more acres this century.

High winds, along with low humidity that has dried brush and grasses, making them easier to burn, will create critical conditions Tuesday, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said in a forecast.

“Recent fuel sampling indicates that the vegetation is still unseasonably dry and ripe for larger wildfires during windy periods,” Edison’s spokesman Reggie Kumar said by phone. “The last two months of 2020 were part of the worst fire season that California has seen, with near-record levels of dryness in November and December.”

Along with the preemptive shutoffs, as many as 278,000 homes and businesses are in the dark across the state as the winds wreak havoc with power lines, according to Poweroutage.us, which aggregates outages from utility websites.

A storm system will near Southern California later this week and could bring cooler temperatures, though the region probably won’t get any rain, said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. On Sunday, California saw temperatures rise to the 70s Fahrenheit in the central part of the state, setting records for the day in San Francisco, and into the 80s to the south, the National Weather Service said.

While the winter months usually mark California’s rainy season, much of the state remains gripped by drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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