El Niño rainstorms improving wildfire conditions throughout California, fire agency says

California wildfires

In this Sept. 15, 2015, file photo, a plane drops a load of fire retardant over a smoldering hillside in Middletown, Calif. Thanks to El Niño rains, the risk of wildfires has diminished.

(Elaine Thompson / AP)

Higher-than-normal rainfall associated with El Niño has diminished the risk of wildfires in California for the next four months, according to a national fire agency report.

However, those same rains ultimately could trigger an uptick in grass fires at lower elevations because of a heavy grass crop expected in late spring, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. The NICC helps oversee wildfire response efforts.  

Heavy rainfall and increasing snow accumulations brought on by widespread storms in January have resulted in above-normal precipitation for Northern and Central California, allowing vegetation to grow and “green-up,” the report said.

Southern California hasn’t been so lucky however, and precipitation there has reached only near-normal levels.


Although models predict that El Niño will dump more rain in the lower part of the state, the report notes that some people are growing skeptical.

“While the two storms of early January were enough to bring the monthly precipitation totals to within close proximity of normal for southern Orange County and San Diego county, an extended stretch of dry weather in late January has led to some in the general public to question whether the current El Niño would end up bringing significant rainfall to Southern California,” the report said.

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Five years of California drought and above-normal temperatures have caused firefighters to rethink their approach to battling wildfires in the winter and spring.


Traditionally, the threat of wildfire has been low from January to May. In the past few years, however, wildfire activity has increased during this period. Wildfires also have grown much more destructive during the normal fire season. 

In 2015, two massive wildfires in Northern California — the Butte and Valley blazes — killed six people and racked up at least $1 billion in insured losses. Together, the fires covered 150,000 acres and destroyed thousands of structures.

Although the fire agency is anticipating above-normal precipitation over the next few months, it cautioned that the benefits are likely to be temporary.

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“Above-normal precipitation is certainly a welcome change to the dry winters of the past few years,” the report said. “But one wet year is unlikely to bring an end to the drought.”

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