News23ABC In-Depth


Drought conditions amplify wildfire, agriculture concerns

"It’s a pretty significant situation."
Posted: 5:01 PM, May 14, 2021
Updated: 2021-06-03 19:46:02-04
California Wildfires

BAKERSFIELD, Calif (KERO) — Drought conditions in Kern County have rapidly gotten worse over the last week. 23ABC is breaking down the changing conditions around the state and taking a closer look at the impact it could have on wildfires as warmer weather approaches.

Meteorologists in California have been explaining the seriousness of this year’s drought for months. But this week, it got a little more severe as parts of Kern County landed in the most severe classification of drought given by the state’s drought monitor.

Data shows that a significant portion of Eastern Kern County is now in an exceptional drought. The remaining western part of the county remains in an extreme drought. Those changes all happened in just the last week.

Thursday parts of Kern County moved from “extreme drought” to the even worse “exceptional drought” classification. Both words sound concerning but the National Weather Service says part of the difference between the two is fire concerns.

“We moved into the exceptional category in our mountains because we’ve already seen a few fires breaking out,” explained Kevin Durfee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Difference Between "Extreme Drought" and "Exceptional Drought"

Extreme Drought

  • Livestock need expensive supplemental feed, cattle and horses are sold; little pasture remains, producers find it difficult to maintain organic meat requirements
  • Fruit trees bud early; producers begin irrigating in the winter
  • Federal water is not adequate to meet irrigation contracts; extracting supplemental groundwater is expensive
  • Dairy operations close
  • Fire season lasts year-round; fires occur in typically wet parts of state; burn bans are implemented
  • Ski and rafting business is low, mountain communities suffer
  • Orchard removal and well drilling company business increase; panning for gold increases
  • Low river levels impede fish migration and cause lower survival rates
  • Wildlife encroach on developed areas; little native food and water is available for bears, which hibernate less
  • Water sanitation is a concern, reservoir levels drop significantly, surface water is nearly dry, flows are very low; water theft occurs
  • Wells and aquifer levels decrease; homeowners drill new wells
  • Water conservation rebate programs increase; water use restrictions are implemented; water transfers increase
  • Water is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife, and urban needs; reservoirs are extremely low; hydropower is restricted

Exceptional Drought

  • Fields are left fallow; orchards are removed; vegetable yields are low; honey harvest is small
  • Fire season is very costly; number of fires and area burned are extensive
  • Many recreational activities are affected
  • Fish rescue and relocation begins; pine beetle infestation occurs; forest mortality is high; wetlands dry up; survival of native plants and animals is low; fewer wildflowers bloom; wildlife death is widespread; algae blooms appear
  • Policy change; agriculture unemployment is high, food aid is needed
  • Poor air quality affects health; greenhouse gas emissions increase as hydropower production decreases; West Nile Virus outbreaks rise
  • Water shortages are widespread; surface water is depleted; federal irrigation water deliveries are extremely low; junior water rights are curtailed; water prices are extremely high; wells are dry, more and deeper wells are drilled; water quality is poor;
U.S. Drought Monitor

After 2020’s fire season -- which was one of the worst on record -- California officials are on high alert as we head into drier months. Already this week a wildfire broke out just southeast of Lake Isabella but was contained at 30 acres.

“It was just an example of how dry conditions are and how vulnerable we are,” added Durfee.

The National Weather Service says wildfire concerns played a major role this week in the decision to move a portion of Kern County to the most severe drought classification possible, as the county’s driest months are likely still ahead.

California Wildfires

“We’re not trying to be fear mongers and scare the community. But we want everyone to realize that it’s a very serious situation,” said Andrew Freeborn of the Kern County Fire Department.

The Kern County Fire Department’s aircrews rely on reservoirs and canals to draw water during wildfires. And during droughts, those sources may be depleted. Vegetation is also drier, which means that it will burn faster

“So, if you can imagine, it’s a pretty significant situation,” added Freeborn.

The Kern County Fire Department is prepared around the clock to respond to a wildfire. And they say now is a good time to think about how you would react to one too.

“Have they created escape plans in their home in the case of a structure fire, or what they will do if they are asked to evacuate for a wildland fire,” asked Freeborn.
KCFD recommends residents consider ways of defending their home from wildfires. That means if you’re in a wildfire-prone area, clear any brush up to 100 feet away from your property.

So far, Governor Gavin Newsom has declared regional drought emergencies in more than 40 California counties including Kern. If a statewide emergency is declared it could open up the possibility of water restrictions at home.

The worsening drought conditions in Kern County and throughout the Central Valley come with a host of problems that you may not think about. It isn't just the danger of wildfires. Cattle ranchers are impacted by the drought as well. Cattle farmers are saying this may be one of their hardest years in recent memory.


The California Cattlemen’s Association says this is one of the more troubling years they’ve seen in recent memory due to the lack of rain. That’s because many cattle ranchers in the Sierra foothills don't have irrigation, so they rely on rainfall exclusively to grow the grass that feeds their cows.

After a year like this where precipitation levels have been low, grass doesn’t grow which means cattle ranchers need to resort to feeding their cows hay.

“That’s not very economical, because, with the drought and the water shortages, there’s a shortfall of hay. So the price goes up, so you spend more to feed the cows,” explained Tony Toso, the president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

When their economics are stretched too thin, many cattlemen opt to sell their cows, which ultimately drives the value of cows down. The association says, right now, ranchers across the state are really feeling that pinch.

The association says there need to be discussions with water authorities about water storage in the Sierra foothills, something that they say has been put on the backburner for a while.