“With dire drought conditions, rapidly decreasing snowpack, and low reservoir levels, concern for wildfire season is growing,” the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) said in a recent update.
While the agency said both California and Nevada are fully drought-stricken, around three-quarters of each is experiencing the highest levels of drought conditions—”Extreme” or “Exceptional.”
The dry conditions have prompted Nevada authorities to outlaw around 31 percent of the grass in the Las Vegas area in a bid to conserve water. Legislation signed Friday by Gov. Steve Sisolak made Nevada the first in the nation to enact a permanent ban on certain categories of grass.
The ban, which goes into effect in 2027, targets what the Southern Nevada Water Authority calls “non-functional turf.” It applies to grass that virtually no one uses at office parks, in street medians, and at entrances to housing developments. It excludes single-family homes, parks, and golf courses.
The low water is driving concerns over wildfires. Northern California’s Butte County suffered the deadliest wildfire in a century in 2018 when 85 people died. Last year, another 16 people died in a wildfire.
Walking along Butte County’s Bidwell Canyon trail last week, 63-year-old Lisa Larson shared her concerns at the sight of withered grass and trees.
“It makes me feel a little unsettled because the drier it gets, the more fires we are going to have,” she said.
But drought impacts on fire potential are not straightforward, according to Chuck Maxwell, predictive services manager at Southwest Coordination Center, the logistical and decision support center for wildland firefighting in the Southwest.
Speaking at a recent drought update and wildfire outlook webinar for California and the Southwest, Maxwell said that severe drought increases the fire danger in areas with forest and/or bush vegetation, but can also limit the growth of grasses, where fires tend to start and spread.
He said there is an “above-normal significant fire potential” for much of the Southwest through June, which should return to “normal fire potential” in July and August with the onset of the monsoon.
So far this year, there have been more fires and acres burned in California than last year to date, according to CAL FIRE.
While droughts are common in California, this year’s is much hotter and drier than others, evaporating water more quickly from the reservoirs and the sparse Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds them. The state’s more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50 percent lower than they should be this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis.
“In the previous drought, it took [the reservoirs] three years to get this low as they are in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.
NIDIS said in the drought update that most of the ten largest reservoirs in Northern California are at or below the lowest 10th percentile levels for this time of year.
Low water levels across California will also limit how much power the state can generate from hydroelectric power plants, leading local officials to worry about power outages.
The state ran out of energy last summer during an extreme heatwave that prompted California’s first rotating blackouts in 20 years. Officials say they are better prepared this summer, having obtained an additional 3,500 megawatts of capacity ahead of the scorching summer months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.