California drought brings risk of ‘explosive’ wildfires

Record dry conditions across California could create explosive wildfires at a time when the state should be rehydrating itself, experts warn.

Across California, vegetation that typically rehydrates with rain between December and April continues to get dryer and more dangerous, worrying officials who fear that wildfires will get worse as the fuel gets even dryer.

“It really is unprecedented. In my career, I’ve not seen this level,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott. “It’s the first [weeks] of January and we’re seeing conditions that would normally be occurring in mid-summer. That’s what we’re up against.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to 150 wildfires so far. During the same period last January, there were none, and the historic average is 25.

Forecasters say there is little drought relief in sight. The National Weather Service last week released a forecast for the southwestern United States calling for unseasonably dry and hot conditions.


Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency in the state Friday, urging residents to cut water use by 20%.

William Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said California’s historically wet months of February, March and April look bone dry, and that is going to heighten the fire danger.

“It’s just explosive,” he said. “The grasses are just, they go up like a match…. Everything is good to go.”

The Colby fire in Glendora has demonstrated the dangers. The fire broke out after days of red-flag conditions that brought hot temperatures and winds to parts of Southern California as much of the rest of the country was in a deep freeze.

PHOTOS: Colby fire explodes in growth, destroys home

The fire started Thursday at 5:51 a.m., quickly consuming four to five acres. Within half an hour, it had burned 100 to 200 acres. Winds pushed the fire and embers at a rapid rate, ultimately burning more than 1,700 acres.

Officials expected to fully contain the 1,952-acre fire by Wednesday.