The drought is gone. Are we in the clear?


Photo: Rhett Gause

A backcountry skier approaches the Angora burn area.

When I first moved to Tahoe, it was early in the summer of 2016. I had moved to South Lake and I remember going down to the live at Lakeview concerts, held at El Dorado Beach, once a week during the summer. That year, a person could walk out behind the stage for at least 50 feet on the sand before encountering any water.

The docks and boathouses rose up, high and dry, off of the ground. The lake level down from years of drought. I can clearly remember the one day of rain we received in the entirety of that summer: the drought was visible in the Sierra Nevada and our home here in Tahoe.

Over the course of the last few years, the lake level has risen dramatically. Between the massive snowfall of the 2017 season and the miracle March of the 2018 season, those boat houses were back in the water. The stage floated again.

This last summer, my partner and I were in Lee Vining Canyon, south on Highway 395, bouldering. We had chosen to do this because our ability to rope climb all summer had been limited by her asthma. The air was so thick and laden with smoke where we settled that we couldn’t see 30 feet from the boulders. It was apocalyptic.

Remarkably, this had become fairly standard. The whole summer was like that. We couldn’t test her lungs by doing any sort of multi-pitch-climbing or big walls, and we were limited to sport climbing and bouldering. Our favorite area, the Leap, was even worse than the basin because of its location along Highway 50.

I was south in San Luis Obispo later in the summer for a surf trip, the smoke down in the valley was the same. It stretched all the way down to the central coast. California, quite literally, was burning – 1,893,913 acres burned in the 2018 season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The state completely lost a town. Paradise was gone.

On the first of this year, my partner and I decided to drive to the coast. On Highway 1, about two hours north of San Francisco, we were stuck in the little town of Jenner. Every road we tried to drive ended up being flooded. In some spots, the water rose all the way to the top of my truck’s tires. We pulled over at a small café to take a break and started talking to some locals. I’d asked them if this much rain was common and the simple answer was “No.” The Bay Area has been getting so much flooding that its residents have been riding canoes down the streets. Here in the Sierra, we have had some record-breaking snowfall.

So, what does this mean?

According to a weekly report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, almost all of California has been pulled out of drought after the powerful winter storms.

The monitor, as updated on March 28, showed the entirety of the state void of drought, with the exception of a few counties on the Oregon and Mexican borders that were on the lowest level of the intensity rating, spanning from D0 (Abnormally Dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought).

Even when compared to last year’s March, where the lake level almost maxed out of its legal level, the drought has significantly disappeared. The question is: Should this give us hope for the upcoming summer and fall fire season? It’s hard to say.

There was an interesting study done by the University of Arizona on the connection between moisture availability, precipitation, and wildfires in California. The team analyzed data that stretched back all the way to the 1600s. In all of those years leading up to 1904, there was a connection between winter precipitation that was brought in by the North Pacific jet stream and wildfire activity. Generally, dry winters were associated with wildfire activity and wet winters saw a decrease in activity. In 1904, that connection started to weaken and by 1977, it disappeared altogether.

According to the study, the decades of fire suppression that took place in twentieth century forest management practices, coupled with rising temperatures from climate change, have made it so that any year could lead to large fires. There is now no connection between how wet the winter is and how bad fires are going to be during the following summer and fall. One of the study’s coauthors, Alan Taylor, found particular interest in the fact that “Between 1600 and 1903, there was not a single case of a high-precipitation year coupled with a high-fire year as occurred in 2017.”

The news is not all sad, though. This study leads us to a greater understanding of what is actually causing these fires. It is a combination of our land management practices and rising temperatures. The Mediterranean climate that the state experiences – hot, windy, and dry – plays an important role, as does the role of ignition sources.

What can we do on an individual and local level?

We need to look at the way that the forest service manages fires. This management is going to have to change and the way that we fight fires is going to have to change, because the fires themselves have started to take on a different character.

We can also help by not playing the role of the ignitor. Watch for signs of instability when you go camping in the upcoming months. Listen to the sign that Smokey Bear holds up.

SNC senior Rhett Gause is an Eagle’s Eye editor.