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Despite slow start, peak fire season is still ahead on the Central Coast

Matthew Mosher, an environmental scientist for Cal Fire CZU, sits in his office in Felton.
Jerimiah Oetting
Matthew Mosher, an environmental scientist for Cal Fire CZU, sits in his office in Felton.

Wildfire Resources

Information on active fires:

Cal Fire’s incident page, for viewing active wildfires. This will have all major wildfires in our area most of the time.

  • InciWeb, federal wildfire incident page. This will have major wildfires on public lands, specifically in Big Sur, that are led by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service.
  • Watch Duty, an online non-profit that provides rapid information on new fires, in your web browser or straight to an app on your phone.

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Monterey County:

Santa Cruz County:

Wildfires can happen almost anytime of year in California, but as vegetation continues to dry in the summer sun, it becomes a combustible fuel, making the late summer and fall when fire risk is at its peak.

Matthew Mosher, an environmental scientist with Cal Fire, says the outlook is better than years past in the Monterey Bay region.

“We had a really good rain year last winter,” Mosher said. “So our fuel moistures are higher than they have been for the past few years.”

While that moisture has helped delay fire season, Mosher says fuels will still hit their driest point in the next couple of months.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Mosher (MM): In the overall scheme of things (our soil moisture) is still only around average of what we would normally expect. So we've had kind of a slow start to fire season, but as we progress into the hotter, drier parts of the year and into the fall, that moisture is going to continue to decrease, the fuels are going to continue to dry out and that risk is going to be higher than it has been from the beginning of part of the season.

We're speaking in early August. Is the fuel moisture level still elevated from where it was last year at this point?

MM: Yeah, it's higher than it was last year at this point, but it will continue decreasing usually into October, where it'll kind of bottom out until the growing season begins again in February or so.

So is that a good metric for assessing what might be the most dangerous part of fire season this year?

MM: It's one metric. So we have what's called the fire behavior triangle, and the three parts of the triangle are topography, weather and fuels. So the fuel moistures, the fuel component, that's one part of the triangle. But topography and weather are also really important in determining fire risk.

So I imagine with increased moisture availability, there's also increased vegetation growth. So how do those two work out in the end, the moisture content versus the abundance (when assessing fire risk)?

MM: Right. So that's a really important point is while the moisture is high, the fire risk is lower, but at some point it's going to dry out. And now we have a lot more vegetation and fuel on the ground. And we're actually seeing in some of the areas that burned in 2020 in the lightning complex that haven't seen much regrowth, we're seeing this year a lot of shrub regrowth, and that's still extending even now into August.

So as we go into the drier, hotter part of the year and those fuels dry out, there's a lot more of it. And then looking into the future, into next year or years after, if we have drought years, now we have more fuel on the ground, more fuel in the forest, that's going to be influenced by prospective drought.

Would you say that it's better that it was wet over the winter?

MM: It's absolutely better. The precipitation versus the drought does substantially reduce the fire risk. It's just not a linear relationship. It's a little more nuanced.

Are there parts of Santa Cruz County or our region in general that have already dried out where the fuel moisture is basically bottomed out already at this point?

MM: There’s differences regionally, particularly you see the differences kind of in the break of the fog line, right? So in the summer, an inversion sets up. And the higher portions of Santa Cruz County, they don't really get any of that fog influence. So the fuels will dry out faster and then they won't have that kind of overnight recovery when the humidity goes up because there's no fog.

So the rain from this most recent winter, the immense amount of rain that we got, that is actually pretty helpful for this year's fire season. But it doesn't necessarily predict what's going to happen next year.

MM: Exactly

Can you talk more about how people this year with the moisture level that we’ve been talking about and the vegetation level that we’ve been talking about, how they should prepare for this fire season?

MM: You know, I don't think it really changes year to year. You need to be prepared at all times. And the conditions may be less conducive to a wildfire, but it can still happen at any point. So I would encourage people not to be complacent just because it was a wet winter.

Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.