The snowpack in California is dangerously low. The state gets most of its water from snow melt that begins high in the Sierra Nevada. Low snowpack means a drier summer and potentially more wildfires.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: This month is shaping up to be one of the driest Februarys in California's history. State water officials said today that snowpack across the Sierra Nevada is measuring less than half of what's normal for this time of year. That matters to skiers and snowboarders. But more critically, sunny skies in the winter could mean more wildfires come summer and fall. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Peter Arcuni reports.
PETER ARCUNI, BYLINE: Armed with aluminum survey poles and electronic sensors, hydrologists in California flock to the Sierra Nevada each winter to measure snowpack. That's because about a third of the state's annual water supply for drinking and agriculture gets stored as snow.
CHRIS ORRICK: Then when the snowpack starts to melt in the late spring, early summer, that water will hopefully slowly melt off and replenish the water that is held in our reservoirs.
ARCUNI: Chris Orrick is with the California Department of Water Resources. He says the dry winter is in stark contrast to last year.
ORRICK: It was probably one of the wettest Februarys we've ever had. Some areas of the Sierra accumulated up to 50 feet of snow, whereas this year, in the majority of the Central Valley and Northern California, we had a little to no measurable precipitation.
ARCUNI: The silver lining, Orrick says, is that the state's reservoirs still have plenty of water, thanks to all the snow and rain from last year. While officials aren't ready to declare a drought, a dry winter can signal an early start to California's wildfire season, which has devastated parts of the state in recent years.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The massive Carr Fire.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Mendocino Complex.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The Atlas and Tubbs fires.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The Camp Fire is now the most destructive fire in state history.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The name that they've given to two fires that are close enough to one another that it essentially is one incident. And this fire is a monster. It is...
ARCUNI: The snowpack is an important insurance policy to protect against wildfire, says John Abatzoglou. He's a climatologist with the University of California, Merced.
JOHN ABATZOGLOU: So that snowmelt provides a gradual source of moisture, keeping those fuels in our forested areas wet later into the spring and early summer. And so when we don't have the snowpack in place, when we have a subpar snowpack, those fuels are allowed to green up and actually dry out earlier in the year.
ARCUNI: And that, says Abatzoglou, sets the stage for an early start to fire season.
ABATZOGLOU: So California certainly has seen longer fire seasons lasting both later into the fall and starting early in the spring. And unfortunately, the lack of precipitation across the state - we basically struck out during the two wettest months of the year.
ARCUNI: A spokesman for Cal Fire, the agency responsible for fire prevention in California, says that the current dry, windy conditions have already contributed to more wildfires than usual this winter. But fire officials and water managers point out that California's wet season isn't over yet. They're hoping for a repeat of 2018, when a series of March storms replenished the snowpack in time for the spring runoff.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Arcuni in San Francisco.