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Environment

Rains in California are helping douse wildfires, but present new problems

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Wildfire and drought - those are two words we've become very used to hearing when talking about the state of California. But this weekend brought the state something very different.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

MCCAMMON: An intense Pacific storm fed by a subtropical, atmospheric river doused some parts of the state with more than a foot of rain. The storm system also brought the season's first heavy snow to the Sierra Nevada. To tell us about this sudden change in fortunes, we're joined now by Dan Brekke of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Hi, Dan.

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Hi. How's it going, Sarah?

MCCAMMON: Good to have you. Just how much rain and snow are we talking about here?

BREKKE: Well, this is history book stuff. Sacramento, which has a very long rain record, had its rainiest single day on record - over five and a half inches. San Francisco is knocking on the door of its second wettest October going back to the Gold Rush, 1849. And Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, got nearly 14 inches of rain in one 24-hour period through late last night. So the superlatives abound. And we've gotten several feet of snow today in the Sierra Nevada.

MCCAMMON: And the land there is so parched after fires and drought, of course. What effects have you seen so far from all of this water and snow?

BREKKE: Well, I think the big worry going in was that we would see widespread debris flow - debris flows and rock slides from, you know, the after effects of the wildfires the last couple of years. Those seem to have been pretty isolated. There have been some slides and debris flows in the areas of the Dixie Fire up in northeastern California and the Calder Fire area near Lake Tahoe. We saw very rapid rises in rivers and creeks near the coast, and those caused some flooding - nothing too extensive. But there were a handful of homes flooded in the North Bay, north of San Francisco, the city of Santa Rosa, especially. But most of the flooding was of the - sort of the serious nuisance variety. For instance, one of the major freeways here was shut overnight because all the lanes, both directions, were covered with water.

MCCAMMON: We've heard so much about the intense fire season in California this year. Does this storm put a stop to that?

BREKKE: Well, yes and no. The northern half of the state is pretty safe from wildfires after this. The chances of wildfire ignitions are greatly diminished. But Cal Fire, our firefighting agency, likes to say this is a big state, and there are still areas in Southern California that have yet to get any meaningful rainfall. So it's too early to close the book on the chances of wildfires there. And that's even with rain today in the LA area, which is heavy enough that it's prompted flood advisories across much of the area.

MCCAMMON: The state also has faced severe drought this year. How much did the storm help with that?

BREKKE: Well, clearly any rain we get is beneficial at this point, but it is really way too early in the season to say anything definitive. We hope for a really wet December, January and February to pull us out of the drought.

MCCAMMON: Dan Brekke with member station KQED in San Francisco, thanks so much.

BREKKE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.