7:30 pm; June 16, 2016: Sundowner winds blow the Sherpa Fire down from the Santa Ynez Mountains and onto the coastal terraces west of Santa Barbara (as viewed from the comfort of Cojo Anchorage). Dry season conditions of this kind have been common so far this winter.
The Los Padres National Forest covers about 1.75 million acres. The northern boundary, near Carmel Valley, is over 200 miles from the Forest’s southernmost point, near Los Angeles. As fire restrictions are imposed Forest-wide, strict prohibitions on campfires tend to remain in place in the Big Sur area, even after substantial rain, so long as the southern end of the Forest remains dry.
That was certainly the case this year, as Big Sur received soaking rain while the rest of the Los Padres stayed parched. So parched that some of the Southern Los Padres ended up burning in December’s Thomas Fire – the largest fire in modern California history.
Early January finally brought soaking rain to the south – including a downpour that touched off deadly debris flows in the fire area – so it was not a surprise when, on January 19, the Forest Service lowered fire restrictions from the very restrictive Level IV, to the least restrictive Level I.
Looks like their timing was bad. Only a week later, the forecast is calling for Santa Ana winds gusting to 55 mph or more and relative humidity of only 8-18 percent. As a result, a red flag fire warning has been posted for much of Southern California, including a large chunk of the Southern Los Padres National Forest. The warning runs from today through Monday evening.
With a warming climate bringing ever more erratic weather, determining appropriate fire restrictions for the huge Los Padres Forest is likely to grow more challenging with every passing year.