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'May miracle' rain gives Southern California some relief

May 06, 2013|By Hector Becerra

A “May miracle” of almost perfectly timed, above average rainfall helped firefighters battling the large Springs fire in Ventura County, and guaranteed that Los Angeles would not break a dubious record.

The city was on track to having its fourth-driest year since 1877. But with about 0.70 inch of rain falling in downtown L.A. just before noon, that is no longer the case.

For firefighters trying to mop up a 28,000-acre wildfire that broke out in the midst of blistering temperatures, the rain that started this weekend couldn’t have come at a better time.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Tom Piranio said it didn’t rain enough in the actual perimeter of the blaze to need an umbrella, but it was more than enough to help firefighters deal a critical blow to the fire’s momentum. The Springs fire could be fully contained by Tuesday.

“It gave the firefighters an advantage to put out hot spots and strengthen the line,” Piranio said, adding that the rain and cooling made it easier on firefighters who had been working in temperatures approaching 100 degrees for days.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that as of Monday morning enough rain had fallen to push L.A.’s total to about 5.84 inches since July 1. That means the 2012-13 rain year, which began last year and lasts until the end of June, is now the sixth-driest year on record, not the fourth.

With the rain, this year surpassed 1959, when 5.58 inches of rain fell and 1899, which saw 5.59 inches of rain. Patzert said it would take an unlikely amount of rainfall for this year to fall into seventh place, which belongs to 1924, when 6.67 inches fell.

“Rain is always good,” he said. “This small May miracle couldn’t have been better timed in terms of the fires, because although modest, it really gives the firefighters some help.”

Aided by cooling temperatures and rain, firefighters battling the massive, 28,000-acre Springs fire have gotten it 80% contained.

The wildfire raged out of control on the heels of one of the driest winters in the 135 years since rain records have been kept for Southern California. Strong Santa Ana winds that are unusual for this time of the year pushed the flames forward.

Southern California had experienced an exceedingly dry stretch from January to March—the region’s normally wettest months—and then got virtually no rainfall in April. The month of May normally gets only about a third of an inch of rain, said Ryan Kittell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

He said Southern California could get another third of an inch of rain on top of the already above-normal total it has received.

The climatologist said the rain came courtesy of a cut-off low, where part of the jet stream that normally comes out of the north Pacific gets pinched off and drops into a low-pressure system, which begins to sit off the coast for a couple of days.

“So now it no longer has the jet stream to steer it rapidly through the Southland,” Patzert said. “It lingers for a couple of days before passing through.”

Despite the immediate relief it provides firefighters, experts said that once the rains go away, it wouldn’t take much for conditions to heat up again and for the vegetation in vulnerable areas to dry up again. And the dose of rain doesn’t change the fact that Southern California is in for a dry stretch through the driest and hottest months of the year.

“It’s just a little temporary relief,” Patzert said. “A week from now you’ll probably never know this happened. This is not going to change the summer and fall forecast for fires or anything else. And this is definitely no drought buster.”

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