Deepening Drought Holds 'Ominous' Signs For Wildfire Threat In The West

May 6, 2021
Originally published on May 6, 2021 9:31 am

After one of the most destructive and extreme wildfire seasons in modern history last year, a widening drought across California and much of the West has many residents bracing for the possibility this season could be worse.

Anemic winter rain and snowfall has left reservoirs and river flows down significantly, even as the state experiences its driest water year in more than four decades. Today, wildfire fuels in some parts of California are at or near record levels of dryness.

Fuel moisture — the amount of water inside a living plant — "is the lowest that we've recorded at these sites since 2013," says Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. "It's indicative of very dangerous conditions coming into this summer."

Those hazardous conditions are the result of drier, hotter weather and accelerated vegetation drying due to a warming climate, combined with more than a century of fire suppression, that has left many forests with treacherous amounts of built-up fuel. Those two factors are now amplifying each other, says Daniel Swain, a leading climate scientist at UCLA and the Nature Conservancy.

"I think, unfortunately, as bad as things have been recently, this year looks like another year that has some really ugly potential," Swain says.

Climate scientists point out that a menacing wildfire potential this year doesn't necessarily mean that anything will happen. "Really, that's just going to be a matter of luck," Swain says. But "of all the aspects that are predictable, they all look pretty ominous."

As dire drought conditions spread, all could get exacerbated again by warmer than normal temperatures.

"Summer temperatures are forecasted by the National Weather Service to be above normal again all across the West, including California," says Amanda Sheffield, a regional drought information coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Integrated Drought Information System.

California has already had a pretty rapid snowmelt for this time of year, she notes, so upper elevations "could be particularly vulnerable earlier than usual as we move into midsummer."

But it's a forecast some in wildfire and pandemic-battered California may not want to hear.

Wildfire-scarred hills are visible behind the famous sign welcoming visitors to Napa Valley.
Eric Westervelt / NPR

On a recent day in Napa County's picturesque Calistoga, tourists are returning in droves more than ready for a post-lockdown generous pour, and to take in the beautiful, if fire-scarred, landscape.

But Calistoga — like a handful of other cities — has already imposed emergency water restrictions because of the drought. So the city's energetic mayor, Chris Canning, has to balance boosterism with realism.

Canning notes that since the city's founding in 1862, residents have only been evacuated twice, both times in the last four years because of wildfire. "Not a good resume for a mayor," he says with a smile. "But absolutely necessary for the safety and protection of our residents. And we'll do it again if we have to."

To get a jump on any fires this season, Canning is pleased that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has dedicated a new firefighting helicopter and a 24/7 firefighting crew of nearly 50 men and women for Napa County. Cal Fire has beefed up its wildfire fighting capacity statewide, adding several specially modified S-70i Firehawk helicopters to its fleet. These are more agile and versatile than its old UH-1H, or Huey, helicopters.

And the mayor says most of the region's residents get it: Climate-fueled wildfires are an ongoing threat. So people are building bigger fire breaks, making an evacuation plan and clearing brush — creating what firefighters call defensible space on their properties.

But Canning admits that's not everyone.

"The other school of thought is let's pretend, you know, what happened in the past is the past, it'll never happen again," the mayor says. "The amnesia response is problematic, especially if you're not taking the precautions you need to as a business or a resident to be prepared. That's where it's dangerous."

The entrance to Hourglass winery, with an evacuation tag from the Napa County Sheriff's Office from last year's Glass Fire blowing in the wind. Residents place these tags on their properties before evacuating, easing the job of first responders.
Eric Westervelt / NPR

In late September, the fast-moving Glass Fire badly damaged nearly 30 Napa wineries, including family-owned Hourglass wines. It swept through as the region was still recovering from 2017's record-setting fires.

"That was all remnants of the old farmhouse," says Jeff Smith, Hourglass' founder and president, as he walks near a pile of charred stones — all that remain of the winery's guesthouse, built in 1852.

But Smith says the hardest loss was the grove of old growth redwood, Douglas fir, oak and olive trees, even older than the house, most which now lie burnt and stacked for salvage.

"To me that was the soul of the property, those trees," he says. "The buildings can be rebuilt, but the couple hundred-year-old trees, you know, you can't just magically bring those right back."

Hourglass' winemaking building is a total loss. Steel fermentation and storage tanks sit like sad, damaged sculptures: Most of the 2020 vintage is still inside, cooked and useless.

The devastating Glass Fire was just one of nearly 10,000 California wildfires last year that burned more than 4 million acres — a modern record. Across the West, more than 14,000 structures were destroyed, causing billions in damages. At least 46 people were killed as California, Oregon and Colorado — all saw record-breaking "megafires."

Smith, who was born and raised in Napa, is rebuilding. But he says the more frequent, more destructive wildfires have him rethinking everything about how he manages his land, business and life.

"You know, I grew up here. All of my roots are here, and it's my intention to stay and rebuild," he says. "But I think that there's a lot of game-changing thought processes that we need to be going through."

Past vintages, stored in wooden barrels in stone and cement caves built into the hillside, survived the fire. Smith is looking to rebuild stronger and smarter.

"We're taking a much harder look at materials, defensible space, at fire suppression systems, access. You know, all of these kinds of things to try to mitigate this into the future."

And Smith is hopeful. He aims to rebuild enough this summer to crush and process this year's grape harvest in a new facility here, along Napa's famed Silverado Trail in September.

At least, that's the plan.

"I tell my winemaking team: Have a backup plan!" Smith says with a laugh. In a world-class wine region turned wine and wildfire zone, he concedes, "It's always good to have a Plan B."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are heading into the wildfire season in the American West. Truth is that season is now so long, we're almost never out of it. 2020 featured one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in modern history. And in 2021, a widening drought is creating conditions that are even worse. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In late September, the fast-moving Glass Fire badly damaged nearly 30 Napa wineries, including family-owned Hourglass Wines. It swept through as the region was still recovering from 2017's record-setting fires. Hourglass' winemaking building is a total loss. Steel fermentation and storage tanks sit like sad, damaged sculptures. Most of the 2020 vintage is still inside, cooked and lost. Founder and president Jeff Smith walks past a pile of fire-scarred stones.

JEFF SMITH: Yeah, that was all remnants of the old farmhouse.

WESTERVELT: The winery's guesthouse, built in 1852. Smith says the hardest loss, in fact, was the grove of redwood, Doug fir, oak and olive trees even older than the house, most of which now lie burnt and stacked for salvage.

SMITH: Yeah, that was - to me, that was the soul of the property, those trees. And that's the heartbreak of this for us. The buildings can be rebuilt, but the couple-hundred-year-old trees, you know, you can't just magically bring those right back.

WESTERVELT: The Glass Fire was just one of nearly 10,000 California wildfires last year that burned more than 4 million acres, a modern record. Fires destroyed more than 10,000 structures. And the prospect for this fire season...

CRAIG CLEMENTS: I think California's looking worse this year than in 2020 because of the severe drought.

WESTERVELT: That's Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State. He says California's drought, with anemic winter rain and snowfalls, has left wildfire fuels in parts of California at or near record levels of dryness.

CLEMENTS: What we found is that the fuel moisture - so this is the amount of water inside the living plant - that amount of water is the lowest that we've recorded at these sites since 2013. And so it's indicative of very dangerous conditions coming into this summer.

WESTERVELT: Those dangerous conditions are the result of drier, hotter weather due to a warming climate combined with more than a century of fire suppression that's left many forests with treacherous amounts of built-up fuel. Vegetation across big parts of California are already looking stressed and dried. Stream flows and reservoir levels are down significantly, and all of that could be worsened by predicted warmer-than-normal temperatures, says Amanda Sheffield with NOAA's National Integrated Drought Information System.

AMANDA SHEFFIELD: Summer temperatures are forecasted by the National Weather Service to be above normal again all across the West, including California. When you combine dry, hot, windy weather with dried-out vegetation from drought, you can definitely see potential for large-scale fires.

WESTERVELT: But that's a forecast some in pandemic-battered California may not want to hear. Today in picturesque Calistoga in Napa County, tourists are returning in droves, more than ready for a post-lockdown generous pour and to take in the beautiful, if fire-scarred landscape. But Calistoga, like a handful of other cities, has already imposed emergency water restrictions because of the drought. So Mayor Chris Canning has to balance boosterism with realism.

CHRIS CANNING: We've been a city since 1862. In our entire history since then, we've only been evacuated twice. And both of those times have been in the last four years as a direct result of wildfire - not a good resume for a mayor 'cause both were under my watch, but absolutely necessary for the safety and protection of our residents.

WESTERVELT: To get a jump on any fires this season, Canning is pleased the state agency Cal Fire has dedicated a new firefighting helicopter and a 24/7 firefighting crew for Napa County. And the mayor says most of the region's residents get it. They're building bigger firebreaks, making a plan and clearing brush on their properties. But Canning admits, that's not everyone.

CANNING: The other school of thought is, let's pretend, you know, what happened in the past is the past; it'll never happen again. The amnesia response is problematic, especially if you're not taking the precautions you need to, as a business or a resident, to be prepared. That's where it's dangerous.

WESTERVELT: Back at Napa's Hourglass Winery, owner Jeff Smith says the more frequent, more destructive wildfires have him rethinking everything about how he manages his land and business as he examines how to rebuild stronger and smarter.

SMITH: You know, I grew up here. All of my roots are here. And it's my intention to stay and rebuild. But I think that there's a lot of game-changing thought processes that we need to be going through. And we're taking a much harder look at materials, at defensible space, at fire suppression systems, access - you know, all of these kinds of things to try to mitigate this into the future.

WESTERVELT: And Smith is hopeful. He plans to rebuild enough this summer to crush and process this year's grape harvest in a new facility here in September. At least that's the plan.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Calistoga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.