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Will October Rain End Fire Season and the Drought? What Wet Weather Means for the Bay Area

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A dark silhouette of a person with an umbrella walking through dense gray fog and rain in front of the Bay Bridge.
A pedestrian walks in the rain next to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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A series of heavy storms has hit the Bay Area and Northern California and is expected to continue through the weekend, bringing potentially record-breaking amounts of rain of up to 7 inches in parched parts of the state. The rains coming later this week could be the biggest storms the state’s Central Valley region has seen in nine months.

Local residents got a taste of what's coming over the weekend when smaller storms sprinkled some areas in the valley while dumping 10 inches of snow in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada.

“This is definitely going to be one of those ground-soaking events,” said Emily Heller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

In a statement from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services Tuesday, officials advised that all Californians should be prepared. Officials are most concerned about mudslides in areas with burn scars from the Caldor and Dixie fires. The most dangerous conditions occur hours after a storm when the rain stops and water is absorbed into the earth.

In anticipation of more wet weather, KQED host Natalia Navarro sat down with reporter Dan Brekke to find out what storms could mean for California's drought and the fire season.

This interview from Oct. 19 has been edited for length and clarity.

Natalia Navarro: What is significant about this forecast?

Dan Brekke: It's a huge relief to people just to see rain, period, after our usual summer dry spell. But we're also in a really serious, prolonged drought. I think the main thing that we're going to see is a lot of rain. We're going to get one round of rain coming in tonight into tomorrow, another one Thursday into Friday, and then over the weekend starting Sunday and into Monday. [We could see] potentially really heavy rains that could fall across most of the northern half of the state. This is an opportunity — perhaps — to see the end of the fire season that has also been pretty rough on the state all year.

How much rain can the Bay Area expect?

It depends on where you are. Around the Bay Area, the rainiest locations are in northern Sonoma County and in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and those places could see — by the end of this whole series of storms — more than 6 inches of rain. [In] San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, we could see maybe 3 to 4 inches of rain, which is a lot for October. We'll see much less in the South Bay and further south.

When you expand out and start to look beyond, there's going to be really heavy rain in the Feather River watershed — where Lake Oroville is, around Shasta Lake and at the head of the Sacramento River. And in the northern and central Sierra, very heavy precipitation [is expected] in all of those places over the next week.

What could this amount of rain mean for this year's fire season?

The hope is that if this forecast pans out for the next week, there will be enough rain over the northern half of the state that it's really going to end the fire threat for the season — meaning that the vegetation that might burn in a fire is basically thoroughly soaked enough that it's just not going to be something that's going to catch fire if there was a thunderstorm (which is less likely at this time of year) or in the event of a big windstorm.

Unfortunately, for the southern half of the state, we're not going to get enough rain over this period to really end the fire threat, from, say, Monterey County south to Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Are there any concerns about flooding or mudslides?

There are concerns, and those concerns are directly related to the fires that we've seen over the last couple of years. We had immense fires around the Bay Area and throughout Northern California last year and again this year. And all of those areas are places that are prone to debris flows and landslides because of the heavy amounts of rain that could be falling — especially the storm that's coming in Sunday and Monday.

Will this series of storms help us get out of this drought?

It's not really going to end the drought. I like the term that the National Weather Service office for the Bay Area uses: They speak of "beneficial rains," and that's really a short-term thing.

This is really a series of storms that is going to bring us some short-term benefits. Some of our reservoirs may bounce back from where they've been, and we're going to get enough rain across our terribly brown, dry-looking landscape that will green up later in the fall.

But the drought is really a long-term issue. The long-term climate forecast for this coming season is that we're in a La Niña pattern, which generally means less rain for Northern California than a normal year.

The bottom line [is that] what we really need to get is three really wet months in December, January and February to really say that we were out of the drought. But even then, you're dealing with long-term effects. [The drought] really won't be over until we have several seasons of normal rainfall.

Animated gif of a satellite image of the Bay Area region with clouds and rainstorms moving through the frame.
Satellite image captured the morning of October 20, 2021. (NWS Bay Area)

Resources for tracking Bay Area weather

There are plenty of online resources and apps available for tracking weather in real time, especially ahead of rain, storms and extreme conditions. Below is a list of sites KQED regularly uses in our reporting.

Websites to track basic weather information:

Comprehensive scientific sites for weather watch:

Where to sign up for Bay Area emergency weather alerts

Alameda County emergency alerts

City of Berkeley emergency alerts

Contra Costa County emergency alerts

Marin County emergency alerts

Napa County emergency alerts

San Francisco County emergency alerts

San Mateo County emergency alerts

Santa Clara County emergency alerts

Solano County emergency alerts

Sonoma County emergency alerts

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press. KQED's Dan Brekke, Natalia Navarro, Lina Blanco and Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed to this report. 

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