There was real concern — and good reasons for it — earlier this year about the potential for a prolonged 2020 California wildfire season. The state’s peak wildfire season typically runs from May through October, but wildfires can occur at any time.
“The combination of a very dry January and an even drier February resulted in one of the driest first two months of any calendar year on record across much of southwestern California,” according to a statement from the National Weather Service’s Los Angeles forecast office at the time.
San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Redding all had no rainfall for the entire month of February, breaking long-standing records. It was the first rain-free February for downtown San Francisco since 1864.
A state of emergency was declared by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 22 due to a “vast tree die-off throughout the state, which increased the risk of wildfires.” The Department of Forestry and Fire protection singled out 35 “priority projects” that covered collectively approximately 90,000 acres and would “help reduce the wildfire risk for more than 200 communities.”
The state got a slight reprieve, however, thanks to rains in March and April. There have been 17 fire incidents so far this year, with the largest being the Interstate 5 fire covering 2,060 acres. For comparison, at this time, there were 13 in 2019, which was a relatively mild wildfire season, but there were 30 in 2018 and 36 in 2017, two of the largest, most destructive and deadliest seasons in the state’s history.
“Last year was a very tame wildfire season, especially compared to the previous two years,” said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Brian Thompson. “Even 2015 and 2016 were more active.”
California is the top state in the U.S. for extreme wildfires with an estimate of more than 2 million properties at risk. During the 2019 California wildfire season, a total of 259,823 acres were burned, while the totals were 1.8 million acres in 2018 and 1.3 million acres in 2017.
So what’s ahead for 2020? “The initial conditions certainly raise some cause for concern,” Thompson said.
“Southern California’s late wet season and precipitation will hold any drought back until late summer, but the Southwest monsoon moisture can extend back into the region in late July or August,” said AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok. “Drier-than-normal conditions for Northern California can lead to fires breaking out in June, with more widespread activity mid- to late summer.”
The United States Drought Monitor shows parts of Northern California experiencing moderate or severe drought conditions, with a small section of the far northern part of the state dealing with extreme drought conditions.
“Northern California had some rain recently, but that’s probably where there are going to be bad wildfire conditions,” said AccuWeather Meteorologist Dave Samuhel. “Southern California had so much rain in April, so that shouldn’t be a problem for now.”
The AccuWeather summer forecast calls for a hot and dry summer in the West, which means an increased chance for offshore wind events — leading to days of high fire dangers, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.
“In Central and Southern California, we expect the biggest wildfire threat to come later in the summer and into the fall, which would fall in line with climatology,” Thompson said. “However, if the heat early in the summer is persistent and/or extreme, then the fire threat may rise faster during the first half of the summer.”