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Fire season 2024: What’s in store for the Bay Area and beyond

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Grass, meet spark. Bay Area residents, meet fire.

The explosive start to the 2024 fire season — the Corral Fire near Livermore that tore through rolling grasslands and rapidly scorched more acreage than the 1,253 previous California wildfires this year combined — heralds the types of blazes experts say residents of the Bay Area and elsewhere in Northern California can expect in coming weeks: fast-moving grass fires. What comes later depends largely on the weather.

Two wet winters in a row and the end of drought conditions have kept forested areas moist but fostered abundant growth of grasses that are now drying rapidly into beautiful, golden tinder.

“We’re seeing grass crops in excess of six to eight feet in some of our backcountry which is really going to make our fire suppression efforts tough in the Santa Clara Unit,” said Cal Fire Chief Baraka Carter, whose unit covers Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and western Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Parched, low-lying vegetation is vulnerable to the leap-frogging fire behavior that comes when the wind carries embers far and wide, Carter said. “Those fires are going to move really fast.”

While the Corral Fire, which sent two burned firefighters to hospitals, torched only one home, fire officials warn that flames could push into residential areas in many Bay Area neighborhoods bordering grasslands. The East Bay hills, San Jose’s Santa Teresa and Blossom Hill neighborhoods, communities around Mount Diablo, and uplands west of Palo Alto and Stanford University are some areas where an out-of-control grass fire could set homes ablaze, Carter said.

Three days before the Corral Fire blackened 14,000 acres in 24 hours, San Jose State University professor Craig Clements predicted that the greater Bay Area “should see an uptick in grassfires in coming weeks and in this week coming.” Such fires are usually easier to control than forest fires, said Clements, director of the university’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center.

Thanks to the moisture that heavier vegetation and trees are sucking up from well-saturated soils, the overall wildfire threat for the Bay Area, coastal areas and the Sierra Nevada remains below normal this month, and next, the National Interagency Fire Center reported early this month. The Sierra Foothills and Sacramento Valley are also facing normal wildfire threat levels.

In August, the Bay Area is expected to move into normal, meaning one to four forest fires of 100-plus acres or grassfires of 300-plus acres. Giant blazes are unlikely under conditions classified as normal, Clements said.

The Bay Area is also expected to see normal conditions in September, with one major fire likely or none, according to the National Fire Center. For coastal areas and the Sierra, heavy buildup of dried-out grass and shrubs and expected warm, dry weather in September may result in more than the usual number of significant fires, the center reported.

Clements cautioned that fire forecasts cannot fully capture the hazard, even when the threat is deemed normal. “We are still at high risk of fire throughout the summer because it’s day-to-day weather that plays a role in spreading fire,” Clements said.

As the summer progresses into fall, larger shrubs and trees dry out, boosting fire danger. “We don’t know what’s going to pan out in July if there’s a severe heatwave,” Clements said. “We don’t know how things are going to be in the fall.”

The coastal Pacific Ocean is moving from a strong El Niño into a moderate La Niña temperature pattern, which in past years has featured less-than-usual lightning and sent cool breezes sweeping inland from the Northern California coast in summer, keeping prolonged hot periods to a minimum, said U.S. Forest Service fire meteorologist Jeff Tonkin.

“We’re not expecting a really big fire season this year — at this point, anyway,” Tonkin said. “I’m not going to say we won’t have big fires. We’ll have some. It may not be five to eight or 10 like we saw a few years ago when we were under drought.”

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