California could face a dangerous and difficult wildfire season in 2016 despite a relatively wet winter, federal officials warned Tuesday.
Most of the rest of the nation is expected to see an average summer, but even that means thousands of wildfires, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said after a briefing from the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of his department.
A five-year drought has left 40 million dead and dried-out trees in California, including 29 million that died last year alone, Vilsack said.
“This creates a tremendous hazard, potential hazard, for fires and firefighting this year,” he said.
An El Niño weather pattern brought near-normal snowfall to parts of California last winter, but its forests need much more rain and snow to recover fully from the drought, Vilsack said.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Southern California didn’t benefit from the El Niño as much as the state’s northern mountains.
He said the effects of drought will continue to kill California’s trees for at least three more years.
Tidwell and Vilsack said the Forest Service — the primary federal wildfire-fighting agency — has 10,000 firefighters ready nationwide, along with more than 350 aircraft and 900 fire trucks.