‘We got really lucky’: Why California escaped another destructive fire season in 2022
This story has been updated with additional comments from officials at the California Office of Emergency Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
One year after a devastating wildfire that killed four people, sparked by drought, and sparked panic over whether the state would be overrun by catastrophic, climate-fueled wildfires, the deadliest fire that California has ever seen occurred less than two weeks ago, in Sonoma County, not far from the region where the fires began in December.
The wildfire caused just $1 million in damage to the small city of Healdsburg, which is surrounded by vineyards and a small, rural town. But it also left an enormous amount of destruction in Sonoma County, home to more than one million people. It’s the region with few fire restrictions, and a state with extremely dry air where wildfires are often the most destructive wildfires in the state, according to Cal Fire data.
That’s why the California Office of Emergency Services moved quickly to declare a state of emergency in Sonoma County on Jan. 1, even before state representatives released their emergency order in early January. The governor signed it the same day. It allows the state to buy extra firefighting equipment and vehicles, and deploy emergency personnel and firefighters to the fires. It also allows the state to impose mandatory evacuation orders.
And it gives the state additional flexibility, because the order also allows the state to extend the effective period of the fire restrictions for two months, and even a year. This is a critical time for the state, as experts note it needs to get ahead of another potentially devastating wildfire season — starting March 8, after the end of the current dry year.
California isn’t the only state grappling with a severe wildfire season. But in some ways, the conditions are worse.
“There are a lot of issues,” said Chris Poulton, a climatologist at the University of Washington. “But you could say that conditions are more conducive to fire in California than many places in the Pacific Northwest, which is drier.”
Dangerous wildfire conditions
California has no federally sanctioned burn ban. It relies instead on a mandate that local governments have the authority to adopt them as needed through local fire codes.