2014 Shaping Up as Driest Year in State History

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California is in the midst of an historic drought, and the Los Angeles area received less than a quarter of its typical rainfall in 2013—the driest year in state history. Above, satellite photos show the state in January 2013 (left), and today (right). Experts expect 2014 to be even drier than last year. 

Hot on the trail of a pair of brush fires that sparked near Malibu last week, officials are warning the public to be aware of the dangers Southern California faces as it deals with record-high winter temperatures and a statewide drought.

In response to the parched weather that has stretched across the state, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency on Jan. 17. Brown said California is perhaps facing the worst drought it has seen in a century. He encouraged people to voluntarily conserve water. 

“I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries,” Brown said. 

The Los Angeles area only had 3.4 inches of rainfall in 2013, 11.34 inches below average. That total was good for the driest year in California since the state started measuring rainfall in 1849, before statehood, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Co. Meanwhile, officials are already predicting 2014 to fall far short of the 14.74-inch annual rainfall in Los Angeles. 

“The last time we had rain in Southern California was Dec. 19,” said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Los Angeles/Oxnard Weather Forecast Office in Oxnard. “Prior to that, we did have rain the day after Thanksgiving. Those are probably the only two notable storms we had this fall and winter season. We have no rain in our forecast.”

Hoxsie said a ridge of high atmospheric pressure that has expanded across the West Coast is causing the moisture-less weather.

“Having a big ridge like this isn’t unusual, what’s unusual is that it hasn’t moved much,” she said. “Normally, we might have three to four weeks of a persistent ridge. It is not typical for it to stay this long and to keep the storm tracks moving to the north of us.”

The ridge has been blocking storms and is part of the reason states outside of the West Coast have been experiencing such cool temperatures. Eleven states including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah have been designated primary natural disaster areas by federal inspectors due to the drought.

As for rain in upcoming weeks, Hoxsie said it’s unlikely and fire danger will persist.

“Our official forecast goes out for seven days, but we have a pretty good look out to 10 days to two weeks and right now there is nothing that looks like it is going to make a difference in the next couple of weeks,” she said. 

Dry weather, higher fire danger

Unfortunately for areas like Malibu, drier and hotter weather means huge wildfire risks.

Hoxsie said that in areas susceptible to wooded fires like Malibu, residents should exercise utmost caution during the dry conditions. 

“Something [residents] do every day, like flicking a cigarette butt out of a car window, could start a fire in this type of weather,” she said. “We don’t see any end in sight [of the dry weather], so they must be careful.”  

Hoxsie highlighted last week’s Glendora wildfire, which was allegedly sparked by an illegal campfire and ultimately destroyed five homes and damaged 17 other structures. Officials believe the blaze began when three men tossed paper into the illegal fire and a gust of wind blew embers out of control.

“From what I heard, those guys seemed to be experienced,” Hoxsie said. 

Tony Morris of the Wildlife Research Network, a Topanga-based group that seeks to educate people about the dangers of wildfires, said no matter how dry the temperature, most fires are caused by humans. 

Morris, who has written about wildfires for two decades, said people in Malibu can do several things help prevent wooded blazes.

“They can clear space around their home of brush and leaves,” he said. “Embers from a fire can spread… Tell your neighbor to do the same thing. If their property isn’t clear, that could present a danger.” 

After finishing a morning walk at Zuma Beach on Saturday, Jeremy Jack of Woodland Hills said the dry weather is a concern to him, but he is enjoying the warm temperatures. 

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said the 37-year-old. “You always hear about the fires and how dangerous they are. You just have to hope none occur.”