Drought and the 2021 Fire Season

By Mary O’KEEFE

By all accounts this is the worst fire season Southern California and the Pacific Northwest have faced in recent history.

California has been in a drought for years and that, in addition to other climate change issues, has made this fire season even more dangerous.

Dannon Dirgo is a hydrologic technician with the U.S. Forest Service at Angeles National Forest. In his current position he is involved in a lot of land management activities. During fires he works as a resource advisor on the fire line and as part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), which deals with issues that are caused by fire, like flooding.

Dirgo responded to the Bobcat Fire that began in September 2020.

“A lot of that particular fire occurred in the wilderness area,” he said. He added there were a lot of endangered species in the forest area that were affected by the fire.

The fire was in a roadless area with steep terrain and the area had not burned in a long time.

“We saw high intensity fire go through there, which didn’t leave much as far as soil cover or organics in the soil,” Dirgo said.

The intensity of wildfires has been highlighted by fire department chiefs throughout Southern California. This can be due, in part, to the longtime drought conditions.

During his time on the forest service, Dirgo has seen a decline in groundwater and in the snowpack that supplies water to the Los Angeles Basin.

“We are seeing a trend [of less groundwater] everywhere. That is concerning because as we lose that groundwater we have soils that start to subside and once that happens we lose those core spaces,” he said. “It is really hard to recharge the aquifer to the capacity that it [had been in the past] so that is a concern to see.”

Although in the past there may have been some precipitation and healthy snowfalls, they have not been enough to take California out of drought conditions.

“A lot of [our] water comes from the Inyo and Owens valleys area where we rely on the snowpack up north to kind of help offset what we get from the San Gabriels. But on a local level, if you look back 10 years ago we would have snow over three or four months and it would be an accumulation of that snowpack that would carry us through late spring and early summer. Last year we had snowfall that came almost in spring, it was a very late winter, and it was gone about a month afterwards,” he said. “Then, in the East Fork River, you can see it flowing. It comes from Mt. Baldy and two years ago that was flowing up to mid to late spring; but this year it is just a trickle.”

Dirgo watches the levels at the springs throughout the forest to measure the water table and see how it is behaving. He warns that years of drought will not disappear after just a little more rain or snow.

“I was on an incident [fire] recently in April and, because of the lack of snowpack and precipitation, there was actually snow on the ground and moisture in the soils yet the vegetation was still burning. I think that in part came from the stress that the plants have already gone through and they haven’t had a chance to rebound,” he said.

And this is why he feels this is going to be a bad fire year and expects fires to get progressively worse.

“Part of that comes from our global temperature as it rises one to two degrees Celsius and we start to lose that moisture,” he said. “Changing wind patterns and fluctuation in ocean temperature, too; all of that is interconnected.”

He said that coastal areas are affected more directly than interior areas.

There is a way people can help during this extreme fire season by making sure their homes are clear of debris and there is a family plan for evacuation, if necessary. But there is also something residents, communities and cities can do – conserve, reduce and reuse.

“On a personal level, if we are using water in our homes just calculate how many gallons of water you use for irrigation, drinking water, showers and for washing cars and try to optimize and reduce in those areas. And when you go into the forest just be mindful that the water we are using [in recreation areas] is also the water that supports over 50% of the LA Basin drinking water. So we want to be mindful of what we are putting in the water,” he said. “And when you go out in nature you see how plants and wildlife have adapted to the area. I think if we, as a society, can model some of our behavior off that it will help us in the long run to adapt to the environment rather than trying to change it.”