The 28,000-acre Springs fire spread swiftly over arid territory at a time of year when Southern Californians have barely started thinking about the coming fire season. Typically, the hills around us are still green in mid-spring. But this year, after a particularly rain-starved winter, the ubiquitous nonnative grasses that have taken over so much of the region's open spaces browned out in April.
The Springs fire obviously caught the region unprepared. One landowner said he had been just about to trim back the plants on his land. In past years, that might have been fine; this year, the usual won't work. And the respite provided by this week's rain shouldn't fool anyone. We're in the midst of fire season, a good three months early.
This is the sort of scenario that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades — off-kilter weather patterns, increasing dryness in Southern California and, with it, added fire risk. Whether or not last week's confluence of parched hills, hot days and fast winds was caused by climate change, the dryness of the vegetation points to a wildfire threat that won't wait for the usual Southern Californian procrastination over thinning plants.
Municipalities and the state — as well as the federal government, with its large land holdings in California — should take swift and dramatic action to prevent a catastrophic fire year. The state is working on a long-term fire plan, but the need to clear tinder-like weeds is immediate.