Why California wildfires are most dangerous in summer and fall

It’s almost July, which is usually the start of fire season in California.

You’ve probably heard that wildfires in the Golden State have become more and more of a year-round danger, no longer just a few months a year. But even still, the onset of the traditional summer and fall fire season brings a host of heightened risks that we must contend with.

It is true that the drought conditions and extreme heat in California have increased the likelihood of fires breaking out in the winter. This year in January, usually one of the wettest times in the state, a a forest fire has swept Big Sur – an event the National Weather Service called “surreal”.

But these off-season fires are generally low-intensity and less likely to exhibit the unpredictable and destructive behavior that has characterized California’s worst fires in recent years. In 2020, more acres burned in the state than ever before, largely due to the massive fires that started in August and September.

“The ability of fires to burn all winter is probably increasing, but there’s still a very pronounced seasonality,” said Daniel Swain, a climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I would bet a lot of money that August, September and October will see a lot more fires, and a lot more destructive fires.”

By the time summer arrives, California has typically gone months without rain and the warm weather has left vegetation dry. So any fires that break out then tend to burn hotter and faster – and are harder to control.

seventeen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California, the story took place between July and October. The other three erupted in November or December, at the end of long dry spells that mimicked peak fire season conditions.

Summer and fall fires in recent years have destroyed thousands of homes, sterilized soil, killed century-old trees and created what looks like a “nuclear apocalypse landscape,” Swain told me.

And, sadly, California is likely to experience similarly destructive fires for the rest of this year, experts say.

The state is in the midst of a severe drought and is expected to experience above normal heat this summer, conditions that have contributed to particularly severe fire seasons in recent history. The two largest fires in the state have occurred in the past two years, the Dixie fire in 2021 and the August Complex Fire in 2020.

Already, in Southern California, fuel moisture levels – or the amount of water in vegetation – are where they should be at least four months later in the year, in terms of drought, The Los Angeles Times reported. Northern California officials are doing the same misleading forecasts.

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Today’s tip comes from Alan Bostick, who recommends a view in central California near the Nevada border:

“About 30 miles northwest of Bishop on US Highway 395 is a roadside scenic vista that offers incredible views of the two mountain ranges that define the Owens Valley. In particular, the peaks along the eastern face of the Sierras are magnificent.

Once in a while I’ve taken a road trip through the mountains and the desert that takes me in this direction, and every time I have to stop here and look. This viewpoint is pretty much my favorite spot in California, and that’s saying a lot.

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Send your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.


Summer is here. What’s your favorite part of the season in California?

Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com with your stories, memories or recommendations.


This weekend, thousands of Californians are expected in Santa Barbara for its annual solstice celebration.

The event, which includes live music and a parade, will take place downtown on Friday and Saturday. The theme for the 48th annual Santa Barbara Summer Solstice is “Shine”.

Read more on what is planned for this year.


Thanks for reading. I will be back tomorrow. — Soumya

PS Here today’s mini crosswordand a clue: the largest continent (4 letters).

Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can join the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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