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Abnormally Dry California Forests Are A Grim Warning For 2021's Wildfire Season

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

April showers usually bring lush green growth to the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But San Jose State researchers have been alarmed by what they've seen on recent visits. A lack of rain this year has caused historically low growth and dry vegetation. And after California's largest wildfire season in modern history, the researchers fear that 2021 could be even worse. Amy Graff reported on these warning signs for sfgate.com in San Francisco, and she is here to talk about it. Hi, Amy.

AMY GRAFF: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Why is this lack of new growth so concerning?

GRAFF: So researchers at the university's wildfire center, they looked at what's known as fuel moisture content, and that is the ratio of moisture to combustible material in plants, just how prone to burning, you know, the vegetation, the trees, the plants are. When the fuel moisture is high because the plants are lush and they're water-filled, the wildfires, they don't ignite as easily. But when the fuel moisture content is low, it's parched. It's even dead. And the wildfires, they can start easily, and they can spread rapidly. And they found that the fuel moisture content had dropped to a record low. It was 40% less than the average, and it was 22% less than the past record low.

Now, this particular site is unique and special because they have more than a decade's worth of consistent, solid data. So we know these numbers are right.

SHAPIRO: And so when researchers saw this, like, what was their reaction?

GRAFF: They were really shocked. And I can give you a visual image because, you know, not only were they collecting data and making calculations, but they could actually see that the plants were more dry. They looked out across this chaparral landscape that they visit every April. And usually they look out and they see all of this bright, green, fresh growth coming out of the plants, but this year, they looked out and they just saw a sea of dull green. There was absolutely no new growth.

SHAPIRO: And do they know why this happened?

GRAFF: They can hypothesize that it's because California, over the past two winters, has seen below-average rainfall. And also, we have a changing climate. The droughts are becoming longer, and the droughts are becoming more frequent.

SHAPIRO: And so what does this likely mean for the wildfire season?

GRAFF: Well, I think that experts are saying that this year's wildfire season is going to be bad again. Last year, we had a record-breaking wildfire season - 4.2 million acres were burned. We don't know for sure whether or not this season is going to be worse, but there are already indicators that are showing that it could be worse. CAL FIRE, the state wildland firefighting agency in California, they have already responded to more than 1,200 wildfires since January 1. Last year at this same time, they had responded to 733 wildfires. Now, these are smaller wildfires. They aren't the huge wildfires we see in the summer. But still, these numbers are staggering.

SHAPIRO: Since scientists are raising alarm bells now, is there an opportunity to get out ahead of this? Like, is there anything people can do to help prevent the worst-case scenario from happening?

GRAFF: Well, California's governor, Gavin Newsom, he said that he's going to allocate more than a half-billion dollars to our firefighting effort and preparing for the wildfires. This is a record number. And this includes hiring more firefighters. It includes thinning out forests and vegetation, making homes more fire resistant. Something that's really jumped out at me in the plan is they're going to be hiring more firefighters earlier in the season. I spoke to CAL FIRE yesterday. They said they have a list of more than 500 projects to prepare the landscape and communities for fires. And by bringing on people earlier in the season, they can tackle those projects earlier.

SHAPIRO: That's Amy Graff with sfgate.com. Thank you for talking with us.

GRAFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.