SoCal’s Super Green Spring May Pose a Red Hot Danger

LOS ANGELES – There are a lot of reasons to give thanks to Southern California’s rainy season:

We’re free of drought conditions.

We got to see some epic super blooms.

Our hills have been covered in lush green plants for months.

But then there’s the not-so-silver lining: we may be primed to burn.

For now, things look good, said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center. With moisture levels still high, there’s not a huge risk of fires igniting and growing out of control.

But the rains will inevitably end.

“That risk,” she said, “is going to increase when all these grasses and fuels dry out and become ready to burn.”

Ojai resident Karin Dron’s house overlooks the valley below. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

The last time we had similar conditions was in the spring of 2017.

“I don’t remember it being quite as lush as this year with either the flowers or the vegetation, but it was plenty green and it was just so nice to see things starting to recover,” said Ojai resident Karin Dron, sitting on the porch of her stone house.

Surrounded by bright green grass on all sides, there is little evidence — besides a few blackened trees — that one of the worst fires in state history tore through her yard just a few years ago.

Dron’s stone house, built in the 1930s, is now surrounded by greenery again after the Thomas Fire. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

2017: A Perfect Year for Fire

“Extra precipitation in winter 2016 to 2017 helped to grow a bunch of new fuel,” said Park Williams, bio-climatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“On top of there being a whole bunch of new growth … the summer of 2017 was record-breaking, or near-record-breaking, across essentially all of the western United States, in terms of temperature.”

Which meant that abundance of new growth dried out quickly and, because of a delayed rainy season, stayed dry.

Grasses were the first to lose their moisture, followed by shrubs and old growth chapparal that had gone unburned for a long time and survived years of low precipitation during the drought.

That created ideal conditions for a big fire.

The Thomas Fire was sparked by SoCal Edison’s power lines and then fueled by Santa Ana winds (which peak in fall and winter).

A wet winter 2017 provided fuel for fires that fall

Karin Dron watched as it consumed nearly her entire property, sparing only the home that had been there since the 1930s.

“There were a lineup of ten firetrucks on my driveway, which is about a quarter of a mile, and they were watching it burn,” she said.

More than 281 thousand acres burned and 10,000 structures were destroyed.

Ojai resident Karin Dron watched as the Thomas Fire tore through her property in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Karin Dron)

2019: It’s Going to Burn, Right?

On a recent trip into the San Gabriel Mountains, patrol captain Alberto Ortega took samples of shrubs to measure moisture levels, something that he now has to do year-round.

For now, they are moist.

But it won’t last. Plants are going to dry. How quickly that happens depends on how hot things get this spring and summer. And how long they stay dry depends on when our rainy season shows up.

“This is going to help us, basically at least at the beginning of the year,” Ortega said, explaining that higher moisture levels make it easier to extinguish fires when they start.

Alberto Ortega of the U.S. Forest Service takes fuel moisture samples in the San Gabriel Mountains. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)
Cutting moisture samples to collect data now must be done year-round. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

“Our fire season started extending longer and longer,” he said. “And we needed that fuel moisture sample for us to fight fire. You probably can see in the last 10-15 years, things are changing with the plants.”

Southern California’s hillsides exploded into green after this winter’s rains

Is This Climate Change?

As climate change progresses, temperatures will continue to rise, meaning greater rates of evapotranspiration that will cause plants to dry out faster.

“I think maybe the entire stretch from 2012 to 2017 could be seen as a harbinger,” said Williams, who’s written extensively about climate change on the west coast.

We could also see an increased variability in rainfall, meaning that rain could come in short intense bursts followed by long periods of dryness. That matters because when we miss out on deep sustained soakings during our wet season, recovery from dry periods is more difficult.

Another concern: indications that that the rainy season could keep showing up late.

It’s unclear how the Santa Ana winds will be impacted, though they’re not expected to worsen.

“Warming has been so extreme in California over the last century that every summer is hot and dry enough to support fire, no matter how wet this past winter was,” said Williams.

California has had a major wildfire every year for the past seven years, and the past five summers have been the warmest on record.

Ojai resident Karin Dron’s property was destroyed by the Thomas Fire in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Karin Dron)
“We really don’t know what’s coming,” said Ojai resident Karen Dron. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

It’s Always Fire Season

Regardless of what happens, Dron always has fire in the back of her mind.

She lost four buildings on her Ojai property during the Thomas Fire.

We are on her porch, overlooking the Ojai valley below. There is no sign of a burned-out moonscape. Thanks to the rain, we are surrounded instead, by tall, beautiful, green grasses.

“It is gorgeous and we’re loving this spring. It’s certainly a super bloom and the wildflowers are great,” she said. “But yes, we’re probably going to have to do multiple fire clearances and we’re going to have to keep doing it … and it’s a little worrisome. That’s all I can say. We really don’t know what’s coming.”

Special Elemental Report: Fire in the Neighborhood
As increasing numbers of homes are being built in the wild urban interface in Arizona, California and Colorado, the risk that forest fires pose to people and property increases, too.

‘Super Bloom’ Snaps: Rain & Cool Temps Create Wildflower Spectacular

PHOENIX – Blankets of bright orange poppies and deep purple lupine cover the rugged hills and mountains at Picacho Peak State Park. Visitors have been flocking there to be dazzled by the flower-coated landscape, which is just a part of this year’s wildflower explosion across the Sonoran Desert.

At Picacho Peak, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, the bloom is the best it has been in 15 years, said Michelle Thompson, chief of communications for Arizona State Parks and Trails. Visitation at the park over the past few weekends has almost tripled compared with this time last year.

“It’s been quite awhile, just in general, since we’ve seen such a vast quantity of the flowers in the parks. That just makes those beautiful orange blankets all over the hills and the mountains look so gorgeous,” Thompson said. “You can see them from every trail.”

Hikers walk through Griffith Park in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, which filled with wildflowers this spring. Wildflower blooms in California and Arizona are some of the best seen in recent years. (Photo by Jose Ivan Cazares/Cronkite News)

Everything right happened this year to get the spectacular bloom, said Juliet Stromberg, plant ecologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University. The combination of a wet fall and winter, with precipitation beginning in October, and lower temperatures created an unprecedented bloom across most of desert Arizona.

Phoenix, for example, had its wettest October in history last year, with more than 5 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. That cool, wet weather has hung around, keeping moisture in the ground much longer than usual, Stromberg said.

This bloom has been unprecedented, she said.

“I’ve seen things growing together that I have never seen grown together in my 30 years of living here,” Stromberg said. “We have a summer poppy and a winter poppy, and I was seeing the summer and winter poppies growing side by side. I’ve never seen this particular combination and sequence of plants. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I’ve wanted to see this plant for so long and there it is.’”

The warm, bright hues of brittlebush are taking over at Lost Dutchman State Park. Visitors can enjoy the flowers as they walk along the trails. (Photo by Thalia M. España/Cronkite News)

The rainfall-temperature combination set the stage for California and Mexican poppies, lupine, scorpionweed and globemallow to burst open across the desert, Stromberg said.

“The timing of the first major rainfall that kicked off the blooms, happening in October, was kind of an atypical period,” she said. “Then following that, we had the cooler rains. We’re in an El Niño cycle, so we’re having frequent rains that just kept everything going.”

Angelica Elliott, assistant director of public horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden, said it has been some time since the Sonoran Desert has seen such huge numbers of wildflowers.

“These seasons where we have these spectacular blooms don’t happen every year,” Elliott said. “It’s been over 10 years since we’ve seen this type of wildflower display.”

With the lower temperatures came successive nights of freezing, which can impact the wildflowers, Elliott said. But she said those cold nights earlier this year didn’t damage the flowers.

Southern California is also seeing a super bloom this spring with wildflowers blanketing hills and mountains.The trails at Griffith Park, a popular hiking destination for many Los Angeles residents are lined with flowers. (Photo by Jose Ivan Cazares/ Cronkite News)

“I was driving out to Superstition Mountains, and I looked out along the roadside and it was just covered with purple lupine,” she said. “Even down in the Safford area, you’ll see mountains ablaze with orange – that’s the poppies blooming. It’s been a good year and the freezing temperatures haven’t seemed to be an impact.”

The wildflower season may last through May, Thompson said. Oracle State Park near Tucson and Red Rock State Park near Sedona are expected to have wonderful blooms, too. The parks are slightly higher in elevation, so flowers there haven’t quite opened up their petals to show off their springtime color.

– Video report by Claire Kelly