California’s worst drought in decades is feeding what may become a devastating wildfire season, one that is starting about five months early.
Extremely dry conditions have sparked 487 wildfires so far in 2014, compared with only 2 for the same period a year ago, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department, known as Cal Fire. Potential power failures, home losses, lost tourism dollars and crop damage could jeopardize the world’s 10th largest economy as California struggles to emerge from the deepest recession since the 1930s.
“Having this occur statewide is unprecedented, certainly in my career,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, who started out as a firefighter almost 30 years ago, said in a telephone interview last week. “We anticipate the potential for a very long and sustained fire season throughout the rest of the year.”
For a state already reeling from a drought that officials say could be one of the worst in California’s history, fires would only add to the misery. They could damage critical power lines and cause blackouts, disrupt water supplies and destroy sensitive ecosystems, said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.
Last year, prolonged dry conditions led to the third-largest fire in California’s history. The “Rim Fire” shut power lines and hydroelectric generators, charred parts of Yosemite National Park and threatened the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir watershed, which supplies 85 percent of the drinking water to San Francisco.
The Rim Fire has become the “poster child” for future wildfires in California and the U.S. West, according to a 2013 report from CoreLogic Inc., a real estate data and analytics firm. Homes valued at about $78 billion in total are at risk from wildfires, estimates CoreLogic.
Fires could even pose a risk for the state’s $22 billion wine industry. In 2008, smoke from smoldering wildfires in Mendocino County contaminated crops of pinot noir grapes, said Bill Pauli, a grower and general partner of Yokayo Wine Company in Ukiah, California.
“Some wines had the odor of someone who had been standing next to a barbecue,” Pauli said in a telephone interview. “It was not a good situation and we all hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Fire season usually begins around May and typically ends in November with the onset of winter storms, according to Cal Fire. This year, the department says it has hired 125 additional firefighters, staffed 25 extra fire engines and retained crews and aircraft that would normally be idle this time of year. The state has banned campfires and smoking in several parks.
“Right now, all of our planning is for the worst-case scenario,” said Pimlott of Cal Fire. “We want to make sure we are ready.”
The wildfire danger is of more concern to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti than the prospect of running out of water because of the drought, he said during an interview at Bloomberg News’s Los Angeles office.
“I think we are going to see fire season around the clock for much of the year,” Garcetti said. “We are going to have to keep deployments much higher.”
The city expects to spend an extra $12 million this year on fire department coverage due to the dry conditions, Garcetti said.
At the same time, utilities including PG&E Corp. and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric are implementing plans normally reserved for high-fire season, such as stepping up patrols of electrical lines and bringing fire crews along for routine repairs.
“Wildfires are always a risk in California,” said Alvin Thoma, director of power generation at San Francisco-based PG&E. “With the dry conditions we’ve had, the soil moisture content right now is much lower than usual, so that makes wildfires much more of a concern.”
The California ISO, the state grid operator, said it will keep an “eagle eye” on high-voltage transmission lines, which will be needed to import more power this summer to make up for dwindling hydro-electric supplies and the retirement of a 2,200-megawatt nuclear plant in Southern California. The state typically imports one-quarter of its power needs, according to the ISO.
“The wild card is always fires,” said Stephanie McCorkle, a spokeswoman for California ISO. “They can affect the transmission and that literally cuts imports that we can’t afford to lose.”
If lines go down, the grid operator can reroute electricity and ramp up local generation production, McCorkle said.
Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility, owner of the San Onofre nuclear plant that was retired last year, will need to be extra vigilant if the dry conditions continue, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ted Craver.
“You can’t say there wouldn’t be some combination of events, a heat storm and a fire that takes out a transmission line,” Craver said in a telephone interview.
Upgrades to power networks and new gas generation that has come online in the past two years will help “the grid to be able to withstand the shocks,” Craver said.
Although rainstorms in the past week have provided some respite, the odds are that the drought will persist along with the risk of more wildfires, according to Cal Fire.
“Everybody is probably sitting back on pins and needles,” said Thomas Jeffery, a senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic. “The potential for a really disastrous wildfire season is very high.”