Can Wildfires Still Happen During the Winter in CA?

Every year, thousands of wildfires ravage California, causing numerous injuries and deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. So far in 2019, the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection has recorded 5,637 wildfires. Colder weather during the winter months in California does not eliminate the risk of wildfires. As a resident, you must still be vigilant in preventing wildfires during periods of lower temperatures – especially in parts of the state that do not see snow. Wintertime does not necessarily mean you are safe from California wildfires.

Can Fires Still Happen in the Winter?

Cold weather is no guarantee that a wildfire will not blaze across thousands of acres in California. Air temperature will not dampen a wildfire. Wintertime precipitation, however, could decrease the risk of serious wildfires this time of year. Wintertime thunderstorms or snowstorms can help put out or prevent fires that would likely spread much farther at a different time of the year. It only takes a short period of dry, clear weather, however, to restore the state’s normal level of wildfire risk.

According to one wildfire expert, University of Alberta alumnus Mike Flannigan, even long, cold winters do not prevent wildfires. Wildfires can still blaze in the wintertime during warm phases that melt the snow. Even a week of hot, dry and windy weather in between rain or snowstorms can be enough to start a raging inferno, according to Flannigan. As long as snow is on the ground, however, the risk of wildfires diminishes. Flannigan recommends focusing on a safe spring, as weather experts are predicting frequent heat waves in 2020 for California

The California wildfire season could be upon residents quickly in 2020 as the snow disappears in early spring. A similar chain of events happened in early 2019; after a relatively dry winter in 2018, springtime in California was highly susceptible to wildfires. Even after a wet winter, the risk of fires can be higher in the spring for California’s desert regions. Wet winters mean more plant production in these areas in the spring, creating more tinder for a wildfire to burn.

The Cave Fire: Ablaze During California’s Winter

A case that supports Flannigan’s conclusions about wildfires in winter is the recent Cave Fire in Santa Barbara, California. The Cave Fire started on November 25th, 2019 and burned until December 3rd. It started near the Painted Cave in the Los Padres National Forest, at Highway 154 and East Camino Cielo in Santa Barbara County. The fire caused widespread evacuations in Santa Barbara and Goleta. Dry brush and rocky terrain made it difficult for firefighters to get to the flames and put them out, on top of 50-mile-per-hour winds and erratic flames that continually changed direction. The Cave Fire destroyed over 4,500 acres and caused minor injuries.

How to Prevent Wintertime Wildfires

California wildfires take lives and destroy thousands of homes each year. Human error causes most of the state’s wildfires. As someone living in California, do your part to help stop wildfires year-round, even in the wintertime, with a few fire prevention tips.

  • Keep combustibles away from sources of heat. Keep Christmas trees, flammable decorations, firewood and other combustibles safely away from all heat sources.
  • Cook safely. Cooking is the leading cause of wintertime house fires. Avoid starting a house fire by supervising all cooking foods.
  • Inspect wintertime appliances. Schedule a professional inspection of your furnace, space heaters, wood stove, generators and fireplace before use each winter.
  • Do not decorate with candles. Candles start an average of 7,900 house fires Keep candles and other sources of open flames off your holiday decorating list.

Everyone has a responsibility to prevent wildfires. Do your best to abide by fire safety best practices while at home, camping or enjoying one of California’s many forests. Listen for wildfire warnings and evacuation orders even during winter to help keep your family safe.