March 28, 2013
Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
Downpours that saturate the ground, start streams running and fill reservoirs have gone missing this year, and much of last year, in the Ojai Valley. Instead, the area has seen only light rains, a development which surprised even meteorologists at the National Weather Service (NWS).
“A lot of the storms this year looked better in the computer models 10 days out than what they gave us when they arrived,” said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist at the Oxnard station. “We tend to use the gauges in downtown L.A. as our benchmark for rainfall in Southern California, and this year we have not had a single 24-hour period in which we recorded an inch or more of rain.”
Scott Holder, a hydrologist who keeps an eye on rainfall and run-off for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, (VCWPD) agreed.
“The big thing about this year is that what rains we have had have all been light,” he said. “We haven’t had a storm with a moderate or heavy rainfall this year.”
VCWPD’s rain records show that Ojai has had about 40 percent of the normal accumulation of precipitation so far this “water year” (which begins with the onset of the rainy season in September). Last year was also dry, totaling 11.35 inches of rain, or about 53 percent of normal, in Ojai, according to VCWPD records.
“It’s not the driest year on record, but what’s unusual is the precipitation and rain we have had has been extremely light,” Holder said. “I’ve been characterizing this year as not so much a storm watch as a drizzle-watch.”
Holder said it’s still possible that a good storm could change the trend, but prospects are fading.
“We’re getting to the end of rainy season,” he said. “There’s still the chance we could see a significant storm even into May but the chances are rapidly decreasing. It’s possible but not probable.”
Last year a late storm in May raised total rainfall numbers slightly, but did little to help boost critical fuel moisture levels in vegetation, according to Brendan Ripley, a fire and fuels expert with the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD). By May last year, native plants in the region begin to protect themselves against the six-month-long “seasonal drought” of summer in Southern California, and so they were not able to take up much water even when it did rain.
This year, Ripley and the VCFD officials are expressing concern about a drought that is developing in California and the Southwest.
“Basically we’re looking at a drought that is developing for all of California, from the northern portion of the state to the southern,” Ripley said. “The central portion of the state has already been in a persistent and intensifying drought. For a long time the coastal region has been excluded from that, but now we’re beginning to slide into drought development as well.”
Ripley said fire officials were also alarmed by an anomalous heat wave that developed in mid-January, with strong Santa Ana winds, conditions that easily could have led to a dangerous, fast-moving fire.
“We had 10 days of very dry conditions, with a long-term Santa Ana condition, and above-normal heat that dried out the fuel component that is always going to be there,” he said. “Plus earlier we had had cold conditions and freezing temperatures and that adds to the dead fuel component. We kind of dodged a bullet with that one.”
Ripley pointed to low rainfall totals for the last two years, which he said will be echoed in very low moisture levels in fuel on the ground.
“Even at Matilija Dam we have only about 50 percent of normal (rainfall),” he said, “and that’s one of the wettest places in the county. The reduction in rainfall we’ve gotten over the past two years means we just haven’t gotten the moisture we need to help offset the potential for fire danger.”
Mike Lindberry, a spokesperson for the department, reminded residents of the importance of clearing a defensible space of 100 feet around homes by June 1, even for homes in town.
“What we really want to emphasize is that it’s not just the houses that are in the urban-wildlife zone, or stand-alone houses in a wildland area, that need to prepare for fire,” he said. “Embers can carry up to a mile on the wind.”
A popular program run by the C.R.E.W. in Ojai last year helped seniors on fixed incomes prepare for the fire season, by clearing fire breaks around several mobile home parks, and offering some clearance for individual home owners as well. Executive director Wally McCall said that that state and corporate grants for that program had been exhausted.
“Interest in the program remains high, but finances are low,” he said. “But it’s still a functional program, and every once in a while I’ll get a small grant to help fund senior citizen requests for help with clearance.”
Call the C.R.E.W. at 649-8847 for more information.