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California's unusual bout of rain and snow is helping stave off fire season

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Across the South and West, a heat wave is scorching Texas, Arizona and Nevada among other states. In dry areas, fire officials say those temperatures make conditions ideal for wildfires. But in California, the abnormal amount of rain and snow that fell earlier this year is helping to stave off intense fires despite the heat, at least for now. KQED's Dana Cronin explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING AGAINST CAN)

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Maritza Arreola is using a pair of red garden shears to clip small branches off a chamise bush.

MARITZA ARREOLA: I just clip it, and it just falls into the can, and that's my first new-growth clipping.

CRONIN: Arreola is a grad student at San Jose State University in the meteorology department. She's part of a group of students who come to this sampling site twice a month to collect what she calls fuel samples. She then takes these samples back to the lab, throws them in an oven...

(SOUNDBITE OF OVEN TURNING ON)

CRONIN: ...And eventually calculates how much water the branches are holding. Fire agencies use that data to help determine wildfire danger. Craig Clements is a wildfire scientist at SJSU and Arreola's adviser.

CRAIG CLEMENTS: It's the same thing as if - when you're trying to start a campfire, you don't use wet wood. It's very hard to get wet wood to ignite.

CRONIN: The fuel in California is taking longer than usual to dry out this summer because of all the rain and snow the state got earlier in the year. That's why the National Interagency Fire Center predicts this upcoming wildfire season in California will be, quote, "normal" in some areas and "below normal" in others. It's a welcome relief after a series of record-breaking wildfires over the past few years.

NICK NOSLER: We've had a very slow start, and that continues. But this heat wave does have the potential to kind of catch us up quickly.

CRONIN: That's Nick Nosler with the National Interagency Fire Center. He says that if California sees more sustained heat this summer alongside dry and windy conditions, wildfire season could be worse than predicted.

NOSLER: It would take an enormous pattern change to have that switch, but it's still possible.

CRONIN: If that forecast does flip, grassy regions would be at higher risk than forested ones. That's because all that rain allowed more grasses to grow, which can fuel fires when they dry out. But wildfire scientist Craig Clements says even if there's more heat, that growth isn't enough to be a big concern this fire season.

CLEMENTS: Yeah, it might cause a little bit hotter fires burning, but in grass fuels, it's not significant.

CRONIN: Not yet, at least. Clements says after another growing season, those additional grasses and shrubs could become more risky.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dana Cronin
Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.