Dry, hot weather and strong winds have triggered a “red flag” fire warning for parts of northern California, the first time the National Weather Service has issued such a warning for the region in the month of May since 2014.
Temperatures in northern California and the Bay Area are expected to peak 15F above average on Monday and Tuesday, with 20- to 35mph wind gusts expected in some parts, prompting the NWS to warn of dangerous fire conditions in the Sacramento region. The red flag warning is expected to expire after 11am Tuesday.
Peak fire season in California usually runs from the summer through autumn. But strong winds and exceptionally warm weather this spring have created critical fire conditions in a drought-desiccated landscape that has been primed to burn.
The conditions have stoked small grass fires across parts of northern California in recent days. And in southern California, the state’s fire agency, Cal Fire, has been working to contain a 5,100-acre wildfire near San Diego. About 500 residents and many farm animals in the backcountry were evacuated. Responders have also contained smaller fires in the San Joaquin Valley, in the state’s north-central region.
The climate crisis has intensified droughts throughout the region in recent years, and bone-dry soil and vegetation have helped kindle more intense, destructive wildfires.
This year, large swaths of California, including most of the north, the length of the Sierra Nevada mountains, much of southern California and the Mojave desert, have seen their driest wet seasons in more than 40 years. Due to global heating, the state is also warmer than it was during its deep drought in the late 1970s, or during the last extreme drought that ran from 2011 to 2017.
Last month, state leaders announced that they would allocate $536m to hire more firefighters, improve forest management efforts, thin out fire-fueling vegetation and make homes more fire-resistant.
The sweeping plan came after the state saw five of the six largest fires in state history last year. Experts are expecting the coming year to bring more major fires.
“The parts of the state that have seen the most severe snow and rainfall shortages are the ones that you expect to see the highest fire risk,” Chris Field, climate scientist at Stanford University, told the Guardian last month. “But there are always lots of unknowns that determine the way in which the actual fire season will unfold.”
Drought conditions across much of the US west have also provoked premature wildfires in the south-west. New Mexico’s first major wildfire of the year was ignited last week, and firefighters are still working to contain the 1,200-acre fire that ripped through the dry Hualapai Mountains in western Arizona more than a week ago.