Anyone looking at data from California’s fire season this year may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief.
Only about 312,739 acres have burned in the state so far in 2023, compared with an average of 1.57 million acres by this point in the previous five years, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. Even with a large, disruptive fire at the Oregon border in the summer, 2023 still ranks as a relatively mild fire year, a welcome change from 2020 and 2021, California’s two worst wildfire seasons on record.
Summer is behind us now, but can we close the book on the 2023 fire season? Not quite yet, experts say.
California’s fire season is increasingly stretching year-round, and some exceptionally devastating fires have erupted in October, November and December in recent years.
The deadliest wildfire on record in the state, the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, broke out on Nov. 8, 2018. One of the largest in terms of burned area, the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, began on Dec. 4, 2017.
We haven’t seen anything like that this year. The state had an exceptionally wet winter and an unusually cool spring and summer; on top of that, the unusual summer rains from Hurricane Hilary sharply reduced fire danger in Southern California.
Long-term forecasts suggest that the 2023 fire year will wind up looking much like 2022, another mild year, said Neal Driscoll, a geosciences professor at U.C. San Diego. But he warned that there are no guarantees.
Dry, fast-moving Santa Ana or Diablo winds, especially if combined with a heat wave, could quickly parch vegetation and make any fires that break out more likely to balloon in size. Those winds are most common between September and May, and federal forecasts predict above-average temperatures for California for the next few months.
“We could put ourselves right back into a higher condition of fire threat,” Driscoll told me. “I share your relief that it hasn’t been more extreme so far, but I’m also very cautious to think things couldn’t change.”
Experts have warned that the rainfall this year has spurred so much plant growth that there will be a lot of vegetation ready to burn when the conditions eventually become right for fires. Park Williams, a climate scientist at U.C.L.A., told The Los Angeles Times that, given the damp conditions, it would take “a pretty big, bad-luck convergence of factors” to have a major wildfire before this year is over, but that he thought “it’s much more likely that next year is the big fire danger year.”
Even if this year remains mild, experts say that in general, warmer temperatures from climate change are expected to make wildfires in California burn bigger, hotter and faster than in the past, and that pattern still holds.
“In the midst of a long-term trend which seems decidedly in the direction of worse fires, you can have a reprieve, just because the sky delivers just the amount of moisture at the right time,” Julien Emile-Geay, a climate scientist at the University of Southern California, said. “Of course, it’s very welcome when it happens. But it’s not the basis of any long-term strategy.”
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Alan Bricklin, who recommends a California classic:
“We have traveled to many other national parks here in the United States and have also traveled extensively abroad. While there are numerous great places to see in the United States and abroad, none can compare to Yosemite. There is so much to see there — mountains, meadows, vast vistas and varied terrain. You can hike across easy paths, scramble up large rock formations, visit magnificent waterfalls and stop for lunch along a variety of streams and lakes. There are so many places to hike, from easy to strenuous. Yosemite is great for all ages. If planning a visit, you should allow three full days. I remember one time when a visitor asked a ranger what she should do in the hour that she allowed for her visit. He told her to find a nice rock alongside a stream, then sit down and cry.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Today we’re asking about love: not whom you love but what you love about your corner of California.
Email us a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — and we may share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at [email protected].
And before you go, some good news
This week marks 50 years since Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, was opened to the public by the National Park Service.
Early yesterday morning, I took a boat from Fisherman’s Wharf with other journalists to tour the island. Alcatraz has had many roles over the years: It was used as a U.S. military post from 1850 to 1934; became the birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement after a Native occupation in 1969; and on Oct. 26, 1973, it began welcoming visitors as the newest addition to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“It’s been quite a wild ride,” John Cantwell, a retired Alcatraz park ranger, said as the island’s lighthouse rose behind him. The island was socked in by fog so thick that the San Francisco skyline, less than two miles away, could not be seen. Alcatraz, Cantwell said, is “a place where natural wonder and even inspiration can be found.”
Alcatraz’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) identity, as a federal prison that once held Al Capone and other notorious prisoners, lasted only from 1934 to 1963. Cantwell, who retired in 2021 after working on Alcatraz for 30 years, joked, “I did more time than any convicts or correctional officers on the island.”
I learned some other fun trivia during my visit to Alcatraz: The island’s lighthouse, built in 1854, was the first on the Pacific Coast. The filmmaker George Lucas visited Alcatraz soon after it opened to the public in the 1970s and recorded the sound of cell doors slamming shut; he then used the sound in the Star Wars films whenever Darth Vader’s star cruiser closed its doors.
When the island was a prison, families of staff members lived permanently on the island, including 75 children. Among them was Jolene Babyak, who recalled playing on the island with the other children, taking the ferry to the city to go to school, and bringing dates back to their strange, isolated island world.
“I got my first kiss on Alcatraz,” said Babyak, who has written extensively about her childhood on the island. “It was a wonderful place to grow up.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Maia Coleman, Briana Scalia and Geordon Wollner contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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