Huge swaths of California experienced its driest February on record, with some northern areas of the state recording zero precipitation for the entire month, according to the National Weather Service.
The unusually dry conditions in what is normally one of California’s rainiest months of the year could significantly increase the risk of wildfires across the state.
“California has a fairly restricted rainy season in the winter — between December and March — so we’re highly dependent on what falls during these few core rainy months,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This year, it literally could not have been any drier.”
The weather service confirmed Sunday that February was the driest on record for San Francisco, Sacramento and other cities around the Northern Sierra foothills. This region typically receives an average of 8.2 inches of precipitation in February, but last month saw just 0.2 inches.
The previous record was set in 1988, according to the NWS, which has been keeping precipitation records for this area since 1921.
A handful of small wildfires have already occurred in northern California over the past two weeks, including a brush fire that broke out in San Bruno Mountain State and County Park over the weekend.
Though the recent fires have been relatively small and mostly contained, Swain said it’s alarming to see wildfires so early in the year.
“The main point is not that these fires were particularly large or damaging — because they were not,” he said. “The extraordinary thing is that they are happening at all at this time of year.”
Scientists have found that California’s wildfire season is becoming less defined, with blazes breaking out in the months leading up to spring as well as pushing later into fall.
“I highly doubt that January and February are going to become dangerous wildfire months in California, but the fact that we’re seeing these fires is an indication that the fire season is essentially becoming year-round,” Swain said.
Climate scientists have suggested that wildfires could become more frequent and intense as a result of global warming.
“There’s a growing body of evidence in the scientific literature focused on how wildfires are changing in response to a warming climate,” Swain said. “We’re seeing the increase in temperature and the effect that that has on drying out the landscape and increasing the flammability of vegetation.”
It’s an active area of research, and one that will likely see increased attention after the devastating wildfires recently in Australia, which scorched more than 20 percent of the continent’s forests and are believed to have killed 1 billion animals.
For Californians, there could be some relief this month from the dry conditions. Though this week will likely remain parched, forecasts show that precipitation could be on the way later in March, according to Swain.
“That said, even getting significant precipitation in March won’t erase the enormous deficit that has accumulated this season,” he said.