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Election week storm in California will effectively end fire season

The Washington Post 11/7/2022 Diana Leonard
This photo provided by Mammoth Mountain shows the first snowfall at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2022. (Christian Pondella/Mammoth Mountain via AP) This photo provided by Mammoth Mountain shows the first snowfall at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2022. (Christian Pondella/Mammoth Mountain via AP)

A winter storm is bringing heavy rain and snow to California, affecting much of the state as people get out to vote on Election Day on Tuesday. The storm could be one of the state’s most significant November storms in recent years, which is part of an active weather pattern that could help replenish mountain snowpack and effectively end fire season across California.

Between 1 and 4 feet of snow is expected in the Sierra Nevada, and the highest elevations could see up to 6 feet. The winter storm will bring winds over 50 mph and could cause road closures. Weather offices warn travel could be difficult to impossible.

“If you must travel, carry tire chains, plenty of food, a good deal of water, warm clothing, and a flashlight in your vehicle,” the National Weather Service office in Hanford, Calif., wrote in a warning message.

On Tuesday, the system will dive south, where an atmospheric river could drop between 1 and 5 inches of rain on Southern California and up to 7 inches along some coastal mountain slopes. Flash flood watches have been issued for many areas recently burned by wildfires.

The precipitation comes as the state enters a potentially fourth consecutive year of drought, which has rendered reservoirs well below average for this time of year. Some cities are expected to run out of water in upcoming months, causing people to desperately conserve and search for water. The storm could help restock mountain snowpack, which melts in the spring and summer and refills human-made reservoirs. While the storm will not solve the state’s water problems, it provides a promising head start for the wet season to come.

California is supposed to enter a wet season. More drought is forecast.

In addition to delivering much-needed mountain snow, November’s parade of storms heralds the end of fire season for most of the state.

The drought has left forests increasingly stressed and prone to severe wildfires. Roughly 360,000 acres has burned in the state this year. Several wildfires were intense and destructive, killing nine and destroying more than 770 homes this year so far.

Weather models had hinted that November could be wet. With shorter days and lower sun angles, it takes much longer to dry out the landscape in winter than it does during summer heat.

“This is the pattern we have been looking for,” said Brent Wachter, a fire meteorologist with the Northern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Redding. “Significant large fires are not likely for quite a while now,” though there could still be ignitions and smaller fires during drier periods in the coming months.

Above average precipitation is expected in much of the West in November Above average precipitation is expected in much of the West in November

The same holds true for Southern California, where parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had received only sparse, light rainfall so far this autumn.

“With this system, even those areas that had been missed should get a good dose of rain and bring an end to the significant portion of the fire season,” said Jonathan O’Brien, a meteorologist with the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Riverside.

The November rain is a welcome change to recent years, which have seen devastating fires well into autumn due to dry and warm conditions. Rain was largely absent in autumn from 2017 through 2020, which featured a string of destructive and deadly wind-driven blazes, including the Wine Country fires in October 2017, the Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara in December 2017, the Camp Fire in November 2018, and the Glass Fire in Napa and Sonoma in September 2020.

Research has also shown that the autumn months in California are becoming both warmer and drier due to human-caused climate change, making vegetation more prone to burn intensely later in the season.

Although destructive, this year’s fire season has burned a below-average number of acres compared with the past three decades, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection data.

Wachter and O’Brien pointed to several factors that helped to temper wildfire activity this year: an overall lack of wind, wet monsoon storms this summer, fewer extended heat waves, and wetting rains in spring and in fall.

“I think in a lot of ways, we kind of got lucky because we were primed for a big fire year,” O’Brien said. “We also benefited from a lack of Santa Ana winds — we just haven’t had any notable wind events so far this year, which is a little unusual.”

Some of the year’s most challenging fires erupted during a historic September heat wave, which also left conditions highly flammable heading into October, when dry offshore winds often bring treacherous fire weather.

But shortly after, unusual early-season precipitation doused much of the state, including the remnants of Hurricane Kay in Southern California, calming fire activity for several weeks.

The September moisture, combined with the current stormy pattern, illustrates how autumn rain is crucial to mitigating the most dangerous stretch of California’s fire season.

“It’s not especially common for us to be getting significant precipitation this early in the season for Southern California,” O’Brien said. “We are getting off to a good start this year.”

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