However, after damp spring weather and cool temperatures delayed the onset of peak fire activity, the state’s overall wildfire activity has been “surprisingly benign,” said Craig Clements, director of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Lab.
“But we’re not out of the woods yet,” Clements told CNN. Hot and dry offshore winds, often referred to as the Diablo or Santa Ana winds, can trigger an enormous wildfire threat, and the wind phenomena do not tend to start until the fall and winter.
“If we get those big offshore wind events in Southern California like the Santa Anas, the Diablo winds in Northern California, those could lead to bigger fires,” he said.
According to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jon Heggie, wildfires have burned around 365,000 acres so far this year in California, which is well below the year-to-date acreage burned in recent years. In 2021, more than 2.5 million acres had burned through August, while 4.3 million acres had burned in 2020.
Heggie called this year’s burned acreage a “dramatic” drop from previous years.
“While climate change has its fingerprints all over these larger fires, it’s day-to-day weather that drives fire behavior,” he said.
“When people talk about this, they’re often talking about the acreage burned and actually not only does it not tell the whole story, but it arguably doesn’t tell most of what’s important about why we care about wildfires in a societal context,” Swain told CNN. “Just because the acreage burned has been less than in recent years, the impacts of these fires have actually still been really high.”
And while the acres burned are lower than the last five years, Heggie said fire conditions in California can change quickly as the seasons transition.
“It can change very rapidly in California, and so even though we are starting to think about that as a transition time, we’re still remaining ever-vigilant, and we encourage the public to do the same as well,” Heggie said.
Janice Coen, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told CNN despite the summer’s high heat and dry conditions, the reason there has not been a major outbreak of fires people out West would expect, is because not all conditions have been present at the same time.
“Even though there have been plenty of ignitions across the country, there hasn’t been the alignment of conditions to allow very many of them to grow large,” Coen told CNN. “It is possible that things will change. We’re heading into a period when a different type of fire is likely, so we may see more activity in Southern California than we have” so far.
Swain said individual rain events will not erase the deeply-rooted drought, but they do help ease fire conditions in the near term.
“This is one of those weather patterns where it’s kind of boom or bust,” Swain said of the rainfall. “We get a decent amount of rain, or we probably get nothing at all, so fingers are crossed, but it’s been kind of a weird year.”