“It’s too early” for a fire like that in Southern California, said Bill South, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford. “This has the potential to be a very bad fire season. And as everyone knows, we are in a drought here throughout the state of California.”
Winter and spring are typically California’s wet seasons, but this year has been anything but, especially in the southern half of the state. Los Angeles and Palm Springs have had their third and second driest starts to the year, respectively. Records in this region go back more than 70 years.
“We haven’t seen a drop of rain,” South said.
Without much-needed rain, vegetation in Orange County has dried to a crisp, fueling Wednesday night’s fast-moving coastal fire. Forecasters told CNN the winds weren’t even particularly strong.
“I could have called it windy,” South said. “But it wasn’t the typical Santa Ana situation where they would get strong easterly winds like they usually do, causing fires to spread rapidly in Southern California.”
In fact, the winds that helped spread the fire were blowing off the Pacific Ocean, meaning they were cool and moist.
“The humidity was high, which is not necessarily optimal to get that type of burn,” said Greg Martin, NWS San Diego meteorologist. “I was very surprised when I saw the plume of smoke last night on my trip and wondered what was burning.
“That was not what I would have thought would be an ideal situation, and yet we had a substantial fire.”
Wildfires have historically peaked in the late summer and fall in California. But now, instead of a fire season, officials are increasingly pointing to a “fire year,” where wildfires occur in any given month.
“We’ve stopped talking about fire seasons,” Issac Sanchez, communications chief for the Cal Fire battalion, told CNN. “The implication of that term is that if we’re in fire season, there’s a time of year when we’re not in fire season. That’s not the case in California anymore.”
“It is the result of climate change, it is the result of the drought that we are seeing,” Sánchez said. “The Coastal Fire is a graphic example that you don’t need thousands of acres burned to impact you.”
Sanchez added that unless the prolonged drought and dry conditions in the state improve, and do so steadily for years, California fire crews will continue to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
“We are preparing for the worst,” he said. “We have to be prepared for the worst, there is no hope that things will get better.”
As firefighters battled the blaze early Thursday morning, Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy pointed out how different this was from what they had encountered in the past.
“The fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the West, are so dry that a fire like this is going to be more common,” he said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, a fire like this would probably have stopped very small.”