LOS ANGELES—Ed Heinlein surveys the steep mountainside that has repeatedly unleashed tons of mud into the backyard of his Southern California home since a 2014 wildfire and still hopes the drought-stricken state gets more rain.
“We have to have the rain,” said Heinlein, whose home east of Los Angeles has become a poster child for the region’s cycle of fire and flood. “It’s bad for us but it’s desperate for the state.”
Residents had hoped that El Niño would drench California with enough water to end the drought that is now in its fifth year.
But so far, the periodic ocean-warming phenomenon has left much of the state in the dust, delivering a few quick storms but not yet bringing the legendary rain linked to past El Niños.
Winter, especially in the southern half of the state, has been dry with summerlike heat suitable for a day at the beach or patio dining.
The National Weather Service says last month was the warmest February in San Diego since record-keeping began in 1875. In Los Angeles, it was the second-warmest on the books.
Temperatures hit 80 degrees or higher on 11 days during the month in downtown Los Angeles.
Lack of precipitation has been similarly extreme: Only 0.79 inch fell downtown, just 21 percent of February’s normal 3.8 inches. Since Oct. 1 only 4.99 inches have fallen, nearly 6 inches less than the 10.96 inches normally accumulated by this time.
Rain and snowfall in the weeks ahead would have to be extensive to make up lost ground and ease the drought—even with the current forecast of a series of early March storms heading directly toward California.
Scientists say a dome of high pressure has kept the El Niño storm track well to the north, helping build vital snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in the West but leaving the southern half of the Golden State mostly hot and very dry.
The lack of rain has made it easy to think of El Niño as having come and gone.
“We were ready for it,” said Megan McAteer, 32, as she pushed a stroller carrying her 4-month-old son through the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles on a sunny day. “I was looking forward to (rain) because it’s nice to be inside and be all cozy sometimes.”
Skiers celebrated a long-awaited coating of snow in Southern California’s mountains earlier this year but have since watched it melt away.
“Temporarily closed. Waiting for new snow,” the Mountain High ski resort northeast of Los Angeles posted Feb. 28 on Facebook, two days after Mount Waterman to the west stopped running its lifts.
The wait for fresh snow may not be long, however.
The National Weather Service predicts a major change in the pattern by week’s end as the jet stream finally takes aim at California with a series of storms expected to bring extensive rain, mountain snow, high winds, and big surf.
“March has come in like a lamb but it’s going to show its teeth and transform into a lion by the time we get into early next week,” meteorologist Mark Moede said in a video briefing from the San Diego office of the weather service.
Authorities responsible for preparing citizens for bad weather, especially vulnerable populations such as the elderly and homeless, haven’t been idle during the dry period.
“We’re hosting seminars, workshops, training, and we hope that people will find the time to get prepared because when these disasters hit there’s no advance notice,” said Ken Kondo, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management.
Heinlein, the Azusa resident plagued by debris flows, noted on a hot afternoon early this week that El Niño may still prove to be a bust.
“But if I had to bet money I would just say it’s the calm before the storm,” he said.