Livestock grazing is booming in Sonoma County as tall grasses from winter rains raise fire danger

With rain, there’s fire.

Or at least there’s the potential for fire as a result of high grasses when things heat up this summer. This is in line with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast released Monday.

Throw in a little human carelessness or malicious intent in with excess ripe fuel to burn, and a summer’s heat wave mixed with wind could spark a busy year for California fire officials.

Tubbs, Kincade, LNU Lightning Complex, Glass fires — the North Bay knows this scenario all too well.

“The rain we got is great,” Santa Rosa Fire Assistant Marshal Paul Lowenthal said. “But the issue here is it’s created an incredible growth of seasonal grasses. At least it’s nice for now, with the temperatures in the low 70s. But if, all of a sudden, we have another heatwave with the wind, that’s an issue.”

The soil moisture was “fantastic” for heavier fuel like larger brush and trees, but Sonoma County has already started to experience a “curing” of the grasses that have gone brown, Lowenthal explained. A dragging chain, tossed cigarette or lawnmower without a spark arrester could ignite a fire fueled by higher-than-normal ladder fuels.

The “relatively cool” temperatures the West has experienced this late spring is about to change next month, Scripps Institution of Oceanography Meteorologist Julie Kalansky told attendees on a National Integrated Drought Information System virtual conference call on Monday. NIDIS is a research collective that holds a partnership with NOAA.

The summer forecast for the Golden State calls for an up to 40% chance of above normal temperatures from June to August.

Although the drought map shows less than 12% of California experiencing those conditions at the moment, upcoming warmer temps could spell trouble for fire officials struggling with perceived complacency among North Bay residents and businesses believing the fire danger is non-existent. What they may not consider is the explosive amount of high-growth grasses spawned by 31 atmospheric rivers this winter.

“People assume that, since we had significant rain, there will be minimal fire activity, but they shouldn’t be lulled into that false sense of security,” Cal Fire Deputy Director Nick Schuler said. “We had 197 fires in California just last week alone. While there can be a beautiful green on one hillside, another is going brown.”

Cal Fire views the last five years as more than routine fire danger, accentuated by tree die off and debris left in burn piles and previous burns.

Fire watchers predict a delayed danger at the height of this fire year. (Cal Fire no longer calls it a season.) With the grasses shooting up to twice their normal height, the late summer into fall may serve as a test. Once temperatures heat up, so does the potential of sparking that growth that Cal Fire refers to as “one-hour fuels” for how quickly these blazes can take off.

“What people tend to forget is all that dead stuff is still dead from last year. Now we have the grasses that can take off in an instant,” Schuler said.

If the terrain concern isn’t enough, the added challenges for Cal Fire center on behavior. Humans account for 95% of these blazes — with the number of California arson arrests surging. In the last four years, the crime has more than doubled. In 2019, there were 70 arson cases in the state. They skyrocketed to 120 in 2020. Last year, they numbered 162.

“That’s the most we’ve had,” Schuler said.

Time to go wild

Many organizations from park services to homeowner associations are now calling on wildlife for help.

Grazing sheep and goat operations are reporting increased requests from customers wanting their grass chewed up.

Jan Canady, owner of Living Systems Land Management based in Coalinga, said the phone has been ringing off the hook with calls for her sheep to come out to graze. She’s planning on bringing the sheep to Oakmont in Santa Rosa.

Local companies are experiencing the same rush.

“I’m already booking into August and September,” said Chase Cianfichi of Santa Rosa-based Chasin’ Goats Grazing, which is most often found on the Fountaingrove hillsides and at Trione Annadel State Park. “There are definitely worries.”

Falling into winter

After enduring summer’s heat, NOAA climate forecasters are predicting southern Pacific Ocean water-warming conditions ripe for El Nino, a tropical weather phenomenon offshore from South America that often delivers heavy rain activity from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California.

“There’s going to be a strong El Nino,” said U.S. Forest Service Meteorologist Matt Shameson, making his prediction on the conference call. Climatologists, including NOAA’s El Nino expert Michelle L’Heureux, are now saying there’s at least a 62% chance of a strong El Nino this coming winter.

California left La Nina (the colder counterpart) behind in December and will by September move into a fully-developing period of El Nino, which was responsible for the record-breaking winter in 1982–1983 that closed airports, flooded streets, and dumped more than 65 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada.

This is the only other winter since the all-time historical milestone in 1951–1952 that beat out Santa Rosa’s last winter with 50.6 inches of precipitation. By mid-April, rain in the Sonoma County seat measured 43.1 inches.

Napa received 31.3 inches, while Marin County got 39 inches.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or

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