Buckle up for a bumpy second half of 2021.

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday heard a report from local emergency service officials saying we should expect to not only see fires, but power outages, bone dry vegetation, smoky skies and wells drying up this year.

And that’s even if the county avoids its own devastating wildfires, the likes of which we’ve seen just outside the county in recent years.

“We know that heat, fire, drought is here, it’s going to be here for the next six months, so we need to be prepared and know how that is going to affect us,” said Rick Kovar, the county emergency services manager.

“It’s really bad already, and we’re not even in peak fire season yet.”

Brian Garcia, National Weather Service meteorologist

National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Garcia told the board the area received about half its average annual rainfall between October 2019 and September 2020, somewhere between moderate and severe drought. This year is going to be worse.

“So far in this water year, and we’re not going to get anymore, to be honest, we’re only at about 30 percent of average … so that puts us square in what’s called D4 of exceptional drought for Contra Costa,” Garcia said.

June temperatures are already above average, Garcia said, and odds are that won’t improve. He said it matters because hotter weather pulls more moisture from soil and vegetation.

“It’s really bad already, and we’re not even in peak fire season yet,” Gacia said, adding it’s not unreasonable to expect fires on the scale of the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991 or the Tubbs Fire of 2017.

“The only natural cause for fire starts is lightning. Everything else is human caused,” Garcia said.

A map of 2021 Contra Costa County fire threat zones, by supervisorial district. (Image courtesy of Contra Costa County Fire Protection District)

Getting prepared

Contra Costa County Deputy Fire Chief Aaron McAlister told the board that, luckily, the county has provided more mutual aid to other counties than it received in recent years. “But that risk is ever present.”

He detailed the district’s preparedness measures and training, which includes new software to help coordinate evacuations across agencies. He said much of the county will be in moderate to very high fire zones this year.

“It’s rather startling, what we’re hearing already,” said McAlister.

He warned about illegal fireworks, against which the board tightened the county ordinance on Tuesday. Fireworks started a fire in Antioch on Memorial Day that burned down an apartment complex and displaced 30 people.

“This is not hypothetical; this is not theoretical. This is something that occurs right here in our county and is an ever-present danger for us,” he said.

Kovar said the county’s emergency footing through COVID-19 and other events of 2020 may have better prepared officials for what’s coming.

“That’s not something that we can train to, you have to experience it,” Kovar said. “But overall, I think our experiences last year helped us as a community … to be better prepared for whatever might happen next.”

The county offers a wildfire preparedness guide on its website. Residents are encouraged to sign up for the Contra Costa County Community Warning System to get emergency alerts.