While Nobody Was Looking, the Drought Came Back

We can be forgiven, considering what a couple of weeks it's been — but wildfire season started early.

In just the last week, the percentage of California that the U.S. government considers to be “abormally dry” or in one of the four categories of drought has gone from just under 70 percent to more than 85 percent. That’s up from about 22 percent this time last year. Put another way, less than 15 percent of the state is completely free of drought, half the 30 percent figure a week ago and a fraction of the 76 percent of the state that was drought-free as recently as September 2017.

The Bay Area is, for now, only in the abormally dry category, with the pocket of extreme drought confined to the Colorado River valley and points east of the Salton Sea. Most of Southern California south and east of Santa Barbara County is in a moderate drought or worse, and a tongue of moderate drought extends due south from the Oregon border — but a reminder of how dangerous even “moderate” drought conditions can be arrived on Sunday morning, when San Francisco woke up to Blade Runner 2049-like skies and periods of falling ash from fires more than 100 miles north of us, in Lake, Napa, and Yolo counties.

While we were all paying attention to the humanitarian crisis along the U.S. border and the public-policy concussion bombs emanating from Washington, D.C., the drought crept back — and with it, wildfires.

Together, the 10-day-old Pawnee Fire and the much-newer County Fire have burned through more than 59,000 acres as of Monday afternoon, according to the Sacramento Bee. While the former had been approximately 75 percent contained, winds prodded it to jump the containment barrier — and the County Fire is only 3 percent under control. Nothing is nearly as terrifying or deadly as the conflagrations that destroyed huge swaths of Wine Country last October, burning thousands of structures, killing more than 40 people, and causing more than $9 billion in damage. But it’s only the first week of July, and already, the total area in the state that has burned so far in 2018 is about triple the area that had burned by this time last year.

Climate change, hotter temperatures in June — roughly two or three degrees Fahrenheit above normal — and plenty of leftover dead vegetation have all conspired to make the wildfire season start much earlier than usual. It’s going to be a long and potentially terrifying summer.

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