First Drought, Then Flood. Can the West Learn to Live Between Extremes?

The shadows were long and the wind across the flatlands fierce as trucks and ATVs began pulling into Chepo Gonzales’s yard one afternoon this March. “Did you double up your socks today?” Gonzales teased one of the arrivals, a man who complained about cold feet during the previous night’s patrol. Another man leaned out the window of his truck and offered a more serious status report: “There’s a lot of water out there, but it’s flowing north.”

How ‘Spreading Like Wildfire’ is Getting a Terrifying New Meaning in the California of Climate Change

On a ridge overlooking the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it would have been possible to see the first flickering flames of the Oak Fire and then how it engulfed its surroundings.

It took just 24 hours to mushroom to 10,000 acres and become California’s biggest wildfire this year.

“That’s crazy fast,” said Joe Amador, one of thousands of firefighters from across the state now deployed to fight the blaze.

California Drought Leading to Tens of Millions of Trees Dying in State

California’s deepening drought has resulted tens of millions of tree deaths, increasing the risk of wildfires and threatening the state’s surviving trees.

“It’s obviously a concern and sad as well,” said Luis Garcia, who recently moved to the east foothills above San Jose’s Alum Rock Park.

Cal Fire estimates more than 173 million trees have died either from bark beetles or directly as a result of the drought over the past 20 years.

Forecasting Our Future: Warmer, Drier Weather Driven by Climate Change Could Make Off-Season Wildfires More Frequent

Rainfall totals were nearly double the average in Northern California in December 2021. That’s what made the following month such a stark contrast.

January 2022 will go down as one of the region’s driest Januarys on record. Just a few weeks without rainfall was enough to dry out the ground, warm up the air and increase the risk for wildfires.

The Colorado Fire, which began on Jan. 21, demonstrated just how quickly conditions can go from promising to perilous. The fire burned through 687 acres of wildlands in Big Sur within the first two days. As of Jan. 31, the fire was 98% contained.

California and the West Are in for Another Tough Fire Year, Federal Officials Forecast

After a 2020 fire season that shattered records and killed 33 people in California, federal wildfire experts predict another tough one for the state due to widespread and worsening drought conditions.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters Thursday that they had been briefed by government wildfire experts at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to expect another extremely active fire season complicated, for the second year, by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With nearly half of the United States gripped by a severe drought, officials said that Americans living throughout much of the West should plan for a year of “above average wildfire potential.”

Will Cal Fire’s Plan to Rip Out Vegetation in San Diego Lead to an Explosion in Flammable Invasive Grasses?

Highly flammable nonnative plants have increasingly played a major role in Southern California’s struggles with wildfire — providing kindling along roadsides and around homes that turn sparks into menacing backcountry blazes.

San Diego firefighting officials plan to dramatically ramp up efforts to rip out vegetation, both native and invasive, surrounding remote communities as part of a statewide campaign to prevent tragedies such as the Camp Fire in Paradise.

(L to R) Helix WD employees John Wilson, Eric Hughes, Dan Baker and Bryan Watte, and Padre Dam MWD workers Jesse Knowles and Austin Darley. Photo: Helix Water District Paradise Irrigation District

San Diego Water Pros Aid Paradise Irrigation District Following Camp Fire

Six water professionals from the Helix Water District and Padre Dam Municipal Water District spent one week in August assisting the Paradise Irrigation District with disaster recovery in the wake of the devastating Camp Fire.

The Camp Fire burned through the town of Paradise, California in November 2018. CAL FIRE reported the fire burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures and resulted in 85 civilian fatalities and several firefighter injuries. The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, according to CAL FIRE.

Ten months later, Paradise remains hard at work on recovery efforts.

The fire caused significant damage to the Paradise Irrigation District’s infrastructure. As a result, more than 10,500 customers fell under a “Do Not Drink” advisory due to contamination from several harmful volatile organic compounds in distribution pipelines.

Austin Darley and Jesse Knowles hard at work in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Austin Darley (kneeling) and Jesse Knowles hard at work in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Padre Dam employees Austin Darley and Jesse Knowles, and Helix employees John Wilson, Dan Baker, Eric Hughes and Bryan Watte, spent a week in Paradise working to help ensure water system safety. While most customers have water service restored, the water quality is being carefully monitored.

“The majority of the work we did revolved around keeping customers in water during a three-day testing period, and reestablishing water service through a plastic jumper after samples had been drawn,” said Darley.

State emergency assistance system activated to provide mutual aid

Helix and Padre Dam are among 14 member agencies and the Water Authority participating in the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, or CalWARN, to support and promote statewide emergency preparedness, disaster response, and mutual assistance processes for public and private water and wastewater utilities.

Damage remaining from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Damage remaining from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

“This program is like an insurance policy that can provide assistance when an emergency becomes larger than our internal resources can deal with,” said Melissa McChesney, Padre Dam Communications Manager. “The situation Paradise Irrigation District finds themselves in is a good example of this. We also have agreements with neighboring water agencies in which we call upon each other for equipment or staffing when needed.”

The agencies identified staff with the skills and experience to help the Paradise Irrigation District. All agreed to volunteer for the mutual aid mission. Padre Dam employees Jesse Knowles and Austin Darley were selected to help.

“Jesse and I feel very blessed to work for an organization that is passionate about helping those in need,” said Darley. “It was an important reminder that recovery efforts continue long after the disaster leaves the news. Paradise is still in need of our thoughts, prayers, and help.”

Recovery effort not over for Paradise Irrigation District

Padre Dam Municipal Water District and Helix Water District crews at work in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam MWD

Padre Dam Municipal Water District and Helix Water District crews at work in Paradise, California. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

“There’s a lot of work up here but the town is healing,” wrote Helix employee Dan Baker while working in Paradise. “I think I speak for all four of us when I say I’m proud to be a part of this.”

Water service for burned lots will be replaced as recovery progresses and new homes are built.

“It is a privilege to have the opportunity to assist our fellow Californians with this recovery effort,” added Darley. “Although we exist 600 miles apart we all have the same goal, to deliver safe and reliable drinking water to our residents and communities.”