By Daisy Abbott, Climate Action Corps Fellow

July, 2021

Drought in California is intensifying at an unprecedented rate. With record breaking heat waves, critically low reservoirs, and a scarcity of snow melt, the Golden State is dangerously low on water. These parched conditions have detrimental effects on our environment and are a primary concern as we head for a likely catastrophic fire season. 

As we delve deeper into the dry months of summer, we are reminded how heavily Sonoma County’s water supply depends on atmospheric rivers. These narrow corridors of concentrated moisture are absolutely vital to our water supply because they are responsible for filling reservoirs, ensuring snowfall, and adding moisture to the land. On average, California receives roughly a dozen atmospheric rivers per year, but according to Dr. Marty Ralph at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UCSD, we only received one throughout the entirety of winter. Because of the lack of rainfall, we are looking at a scarcity of snow in the Sierras, increasingly dry shrubs, and extremely parched soil. 

This dehydrated vegetation and soil combined with the current series of heat waves is breeding dangerous conditions for wildfires. 

Dry soil is also causing a serious problem with snow melt. According to CNN, snow melt is occurring, however the soil underneath the snow is so dry that any runoff is severely diminished. Because of this, lakes, rivers, and their tributaries are suffering tremendously. With less snow melting into our municipal water sources and quenching our dehydrated landscapes, there is a greater lack of moisture for shrubs and dry grasses, which significantly increases their flammability. 

As drought intensifies and the risk for wildfire skyrockets, firefighters are especially challenged. Drought is affecting the way that fires are being fought. According to CAL FIRE Chief Ben Nicholls, firefighters cannot always find a water source that is deep enough to pull from due to the scarcity of water. Nicholls states that because of the drought, there are “less fill points, and less water sources close to the fires to supply firefighting operations.” This results in a longer turnaround time for firefighters to combat the flames on the ground, thereby allowing wildfires to rage longer and more intensely. Because of these increasing challenges, several firefighting organizations have taken to methods that prevent wildfires such as grazing and prescribed burns. 

Before European colonization, Native Americans used fire to manage California landscapes for thousands of years. Many Indigenous people still practice cultural burning and are sharing the wisdom of their traditional practices with groups that have common goals of caring for the land. A lot of California’s ecosystems require fire to thrive, and local agencies such as Good Fire Alliance are starting to bring back low intensity controlled burns. Our oak woodlands for example, are often overtaken by douglas fir trees and prescribed burning keeps them from dying. In addition to controlled burns, programs such as the UC Cooperative Extension’s program Match.Graze are letting animals graze in dry flammable shrubs to minimize the amount of fire fuel. 

Prescribed burns and livestock grazing aren’t the only ways to prevent catastrophic fire. Saving as much water as possible will have a positive effect on our reservoirs, rivers, lakes, streams, and the overall humidity of land. This will reduce the risk of fire and keep more water available to the firefighters extinguishing them. In addition, keeping roofs and rain gutters clear, trimming tree limbs further than 10 feet from chimneys, spacing out shrubs, and keeping dry grasses short, can significantly reduce the risk of fire spreading onto your property and others. 

As wildfires rage across California, they also have an impact on drought. When landscapes, homes, and trees burn, erosion occurs. This then leads to the accumulation of toxic debris, some of which flows into our essential water supplies and contaminates or diverts water. Thus, a perpetual cycle forms.  

Needless to say, the impacts of drought on wildfires are dangerous. From fueling fires to draining the resources needed to extinguish them, the effects of drought are significant. Now more than ever, it is imperative to save water and keep our properties as non-flammable as possible. This will help maximize the level of water in our reservoirs and municipal water sources and ultimately minimize the danger of wildfire. 

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