Fresno forecast calls for first rain since Nov. 20

The Fresno BeeJanuary 17, 2012 

There might soon be a dark and stormy night in Fresno -- at last.

After a record-setting eight rainless weeks, stormy weather is headed this way Thursday night through the weekend, says the National Weather Service.

"It took long enough to get here," said private meteorologist Steve Johnson, who has made predictions in the Valley for decades. "I'm so sick of cold and dry."

Today will still be cold and dry, the weather service predicts. But rain clouds will start moving into the area Thursday. Chances of rain improve on Friday with the possibility of nearly an inch of rainfall overnight, according to the weather service's early-week forecasts.

What finally changed? A ridge of air has been bouncing storms away from California, and now the ridge is moving toward Alaska. The door is open for storms to stream into the Pacific Northwest, Northern California and maybe Fresno.

The heart of the stormy weather probably will remain in Canada, some forecasters say. If the forecast pans out, that means Fresno and the nearby Sierra will be on the southern edge of the rain and snow.

During the long dry spell, the usual string of winter storms has buried Alaska cities in snow, instead of blasting California. The Sierra Nevada snowpack now is almost nonexistent -- 11% of average.

Forests and foothills are so dry that state fire officials in early January warned the public about possible wildfires.

Fresno's rain total is 1.57 inches this season, far behind the average of 4.83 inches this time of year. All of it came before Thanksgiving. The biggest storm dropped .90 of an inch of rain on Oct. 5.

No major California city has average rainfall this year, except for San Diego with 106% of average. San Joaquin Valley cities are well below 50%. Stockton is the lowest with 25% of average.

The puny rainfall numbers in California are not considered unusual during episodes of La Niña, when the Pacific Ocean cools along the equator, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the federal Climate Prediction Center. So don't be surprised if the rest of this winter remains on the dry side.

"It's starting to look more favorable for wetter weather in Oregon and Northern California," Halpert said. "But it tilts toward a drier winter in the Fresno area."

La Niña winters also tilt toward colder weather in the Valley. In December, Fresno had 17 nights at 32 degrees or lower.

Fresno's evening temperatures were several degrees higher than in outlying areas because of the heat-island effect, which means buildings, roads and landscaping keep larger cities warmer.

In the outlying areas -- away from urban centers -- it is noticeably colder. Hanford had 21 nights in December when the mercury dropped into the 20s. On Christmas Eve and Christmas, the lows dropped to 21 degrees in Hanford.

Last January, Fresno was warmer, but rainfall was below average. The city was drying out after the second-wettest December on record. There was little rain after a Jan. 2 storm dumped 1.13 inches, but nobody was worrying.

Now, city leaders, farmers, hydroelectric-project owners and industries have been watching the weather report for weeks, waiting for the first rain since Nov. 20.

One very interested observer is Ronald Jacbosma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, which delivers irrigation water to 15,000 growers on the Valley's east side. He's looking for any angle to assure him that the storm will show up.

"I might wash my car on Thursday," he said. "Sometimes that works."

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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