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El Niño has disappeared for a year. What does this mean for local fire brigades?

The weather pattern that contributed to global temperature rise earlier this year has come to an end, ushering in an interim period where forecasters and fire officials are wondering what the rest of the year will look like.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday announced the end of El Niño, a natural weather pattern characterized by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator.

This particular El Niño cycle was longer and hotter than normal. It started in June 2023, a few months ahead of schedule, according to the Associated Press, and since then sea surface and inland temperatures have generally risen above average.

“It’s one of the reasons why the National Hurricane Center has forecast more tropical cyclones for hurricane season,” said Brian Garcia, a warning meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Monterey location.

However, the end of El Niño does not mean the end of people’s weather problems, Garcia said.

Residents are now waiting as temperatures cool to produce La Niña, the cooler counterpart of El Niño, expected sometime between July and September, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, the federal agency responsible for coordinating resource mobilization for forest fires and other emergencies across the country. US

In the North Bay, La Niña can be a bit of a wild card as the weather pattern produces wetter winters in the Northwest and drier winters in the Southwest. So Sonoma and Napa counties are in a gray area, meaning it could go either way.

However, Garcia said in his experience, the pattern typically results in fewer rainfall events in the region.

“What that means is less precipitation, and possibly a later start to precipitation,” he said. “There’s a big asterisk on it because there are a lot of other things that play a role in that as well, but that’s something we really have to pay attention to.”

This could be a problem for the area, which has recently seen larger forest fires and seen the green grasses that thrived in the wet winter dry out. The longer these fuels sit, the more likely they are to catch fire, Garcia said.

“There’s a good chance we’ll have an active fire season,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a fire will break out… but I can’t imagine getting through this fall without at least a few warning signs.”

Fortunately, if the rains stop, local reservoirs such as Sonoma and Mendocino Lakes should still have enough water to support local residents and possibly firefighting efforts if necessary, said Brad Sherwood, assistant general manager of Sonoma Water.

As of Thursday, Lake Sonoma is at 105% of its water supply capacity and Lake Mendocino is at 87%. Both are above their respective target volume levels.

“Whether or not there is an El Niño La Niña-like environment, our reservoirs are entering the summer months very full and we expect these levels to be maintained well into the fall and early winter months,” he said. “We are already getting a head start on any dry weather conditions that await us, given the amount of rain we have received in recent years.”

Mike Marcucci, chief of the Cal Fire Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit, said the agency is paying attention to the weather, although in reality it has no impact on the operation of their operations this month with staffing levels already at normal levels.

A potential benefit of a later start to the wet season is that you can still conduct a few prescribed burns in the area, which Cal Fire and other agencies were unable to do due to the amount of rain last winter.

Marcucci said waiting for the winds to change — for La Niña to take effect — is making him a little tense. For firefighters, he said, it’s better if the wind blows the smoke one way or the other so they can determine its direction and get to the right side.

The most dangerous moment is when the smoke simply floats up.

“It’s the same with El Niño and La Niña,” he said. “We are somewhat in that neutral period in which things are starting to turn around. So what is that going to do?”

You can reach staff writer Madison Smalstig at [email protected]. On X (Twitter) @madi.smals.

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