Drought Update: Summer 2016

This summer has been marked by heavy rain and even flooding in many parts of the United States.  Drought, however, continues to plague large sections of the country.

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 41% of the nation is in some form of drought. Many areas in the south and northeast are listed as abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought. But, it is the western states that have been particularly parched.

One of the hardest hit states is California, which is now in its fifth consecutive year of drought. In fact, 100% of the Golden State is currently experiencing some form of drought with 43% in extreme drought. These exceptionally dry conditions have provided the fuel for an early and explosive start to the region’s wildfire season.

Deprived of water, trees in California have not been able to produce the sap that helps protect them from insect infestations. This has left them vulnerable to attack by bark beetles, especially as the temperature warms. Together, the drought and these insatiable insects have increased the rate of tree mortality in the state over the past few years. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Forest Service, 66 million trees have died in the Sierra region of California since 2010. That is an increase of 26 million since the last count in October. Sadly, as the drought continues, more trees are expected to die, further elevating the risk wildfires.

The Drought Monitor is a weekly publication produced by a partnership of government agencies, including the National Drought Mitigation Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

41% of the US is in some form of drought. Credit: US Drought Monitor

41% of the US and 100% of California is in some form of drought. Credit: US Drought Monitor

Heatwave Helps Fuel Wildfires in American West

Wildfire season in the American West typically gets going in the latter part of summer, but this year it is off to an early and explosive start.

As of Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, nineteen large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres of timber or 300 acres of grassland – are burning in eight states.  These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

In Santa Barbara, CA, the Sherpa Fire has burned approximately 8,000 acres of land since it began last week. The Reservoir Fire and Fish Fire, both in LA County, have each scorched thousands of acres and forced more than 750 homes to be evacuated. In New Mexico, 24 homes have been destroyed by the Dog Head Fire, which has blackened almost 28 square miles of land near Albuquerque. And, in Arizona, the Cedar Fire has charred nearly 42 square miles of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

These huge fires are being fueled by years of drought and bark beetle infestations that have turned the region’s forests and brush areas into parched tinderboxes, making them susceptible to any type of spark. On top of that, a searing heat wave has now exacerbated the situation.

A massive area of high pressure, known as a heat dome, has been sitting over the region for days producing extremely hot and dry conditions. On Monday, according to the NWS, Las Vegas, NV saw the mercury climb to 115°F, Phoenix, AZ reached 118°F, and Palm Springs, CA hit a sweltering 122°F.

Although wildfires are part of the ecosystem in the western US, the early start, massive size, and widespread scope of the current fires are rather unusual. They also come on the heels of the 2015 wildfire season, which was the worst in US history with more than ten million acres burned.

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Smoke billows over LA as wildfires burn in the nearby hills of Angeles National Forest.          Credit: R. Chiu/AP

Massive Wildfire Burns in Western Canada

A massive wildfire is raging in Alberta, Canada. Situated in the heart of that country’s oil-sands region, it is known as the Fort McMurray Fire.

Charring 772 square miles of parched land since it started on May 1st, it is now one of the worst wildfires the area has ever seen. As of Sunday, according to local officials, more than 1,600 structures have been destroyed and more than 88,000 people have been forced to evacuate.

Only a few days after it began, the fire became so large and intense that it started producing its own weather, including pyrocumulus clouds and lightning.

While the exact cause of the fire remains under investigation, unusually warm temperatures, low humidity, and high winds have been helping to fuel the blaze. But, like many other weather-related events this year, El Niño also played a role. It brought the region a dry autumn and winter followed by a warm spring, which created tinderbox conditions that just needed a spark.

This wildfire, according to the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, is still burning and is expected to take months to fully contain.

The Fort McMurray Wildfire rages in Alberta, Canada. Credit: The Star and CP

The Fort McMurray Wildfire rages in Alberta, Canada.  Credit: The Star/ CP

Pyrocumulus Cloud Forms Over Wildfire in Kings Canyon National Park

Fueled by drought, wildfires have been blazing across the American West all summer.   Sixteen are currently burning in California alone. While hiking in Kings Canyon National Park in the state’s rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains recently, I crossed paths with the “Rough Fire” and saw it produce a billowing pyrocumulus cloud.

Pyrocumulus clouds form when intense heat at the surface – usually from a wildfire or volcanic eruption – causes air to rise rapidly. As it travels upward, water vapor in the air condenses into droplets and forms a cloud. Filled with ash and smoke, the swelling cloud generally appears more grey than white.

Ignited by lightning over three weeks ago, the Rough Fire continues to spread and has even caused parts of Kings Canyon National Park to close. According to the NPS, smoke from the massive fire has also impacted the air quality in and around the park. To date, the fire has charred close to 50,000 acres and is only 17% contained.

Pyrocumulus cloud rising over California's Rough Fire in Sierra National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park. August 2015. Credit: The Weather Gamut.

Pyrocumulus cloud rising over California’s Rough Fire in Sierra National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, August 2015. Credit: The Weather Gamut.

2015 Wildfire Season on Track to Record Levels in US

Summer is wildfire season in the American West, and it is off to a raging start.

So far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires have burned 5.5 million acres across the US. That is an area roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. It is also the second highest total (as of this date) in the last 25 years.

As of Monday, 22 large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are burning in 5 states.  In California’s Napa Valley region, the Wragg Fire has scorched 7,000 acres and forced many residents to evacuate. In Montana, a massive blaze has burned approximately 5 square miles of Glacier National Park since it began last week. The majority of the acres burned, however, have been in Alaska. They have seen nearly 4.7 million acres charred, which is about 85% of the national total to date.

High temperatures and prolonged drought in the West have turned forests and brush areas into tinderboxes that are susceptible to any type of spark. While summer is usually hot and dry in California, the state is enduring its fourth year of drought. Alaska has also been unusually warm and dry. In fact, according to NOAA, they are in the middle of their second warmest year on record, year to date. These warm temperatures helped produce a dearth of winter snowfall, which has lead to drier than normal conditions across a large area of the state.

Overall, wildfires in the US seem to be getting worse. In Alaska, 3 of the worst wildfires have occurred in the last 12 years. In California, 12 of their 20 largest fires have taken place since 2000. In both states, wildfire records date back to the 1930s.

Nationally, summer 2015 is on track to be one of the worst wildfires seasons on record.

Credit: CBS

Wildfire rages in Glacier National Park, Montana. Image Credit: CBS

Worst Wildfire in Washington State History

A massive wildfire is raging in Washington State. Situated about 120 miles northeast of Seattle, it is known as the Carlton Complex Fire.

Starting off as four separate wildfires, they have now merged into one massive blaze. Charring 375 square miles of parched land since last week, it is now the largest wildfire the state has ever seen. As of Sunday, according to local officials, more than one hundred fifty homes have been destroyed, hundreds of people have been displaced, and at least one death has been reported.

Sparked by lightning, this fierce fire is being fueled by drought, unusually high temperatures, and gusty winds.  Currently only 2% contained, weather conditions are likely to change in the coming days and give firefighters a helping hand. Forecasters say cooler, moist air will move into the region and winds should ease. Nonetheless, if this incoming  weather pattern generates thunderstorms more fires could be ignited.

This blaze, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, is just one of 24 large wildfires currently burning in the drought stricken American West.

Carlton Complex Fire rages in Washington State.  Credit: KING5

Carlton Complex Fire rages in Washington State. Credit: KING5

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Drought conditions across the American West. Credit: US Drought Monitor.

Smoky Haze Fills the Air in NYC

The smell of smoke filled the air in New York City Monday morning.  Its source was a 1,600-acre brush fire in Wharton State Forest, NJ – about 90 miles away.

Burning since late Sunday, the smoke was trapped near the ground by a local temperature inversion. This is a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing.  Essentially, the inversion layer acted like a lid and caused the smoke to spread out horizontally rather than vertically.  A low level wind from the southeast then carried the smoke toward the city.

The smoky haze prompted the EPA to issue an air quality alert for the NYC area. With a spike in the pollutant known as “fine particulate matter”, this was the first time this year that the city’s air quality dropped below “moderate” on the agency’s AQI scale.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: WPIX.

Smoky haze fills the air in NYC.  Image Credit: PIX11.

Wildfires in Australia

Wildfires are blazing across southeast Australia. Nearly sixty different fires are currently burning in the state of New South Wales –the country’s most populous region. The largest, nearly 190 miles wide, is burning in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

Since last Thursday, according to local officials, more than two hundred homes have been destroyed and at least one death has been reported. While the exact causes of these intense fires have not yet been identified, recent weather conditions have not been helpful.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, September 2012 to August 2013 was the country’s warmest twelve-month period on record. On top of that, the past few months have been unusually dry. These extended hot and parched conditions have dried out vegetation, which in turn, is helping to fuel the flames of this massive wildfire outbreak.

While wildfires are common in Australia during the summer, that season does not officially begin until December in the southern hemisphere.  The early start and widespread scope of the current fires are very unusual.

A Week of Wild Weather Across the U.S.

Extreme weather battered much of the United States this past week.  From heavy snow and tornadoes in the plains to a tropical storm in the Gulf and blustery Santa Ana winds in California, this country saw it all in just six days.

Starting on Tuesday, a pre-season winter storm dumped massive amounts of snow across Wyoming and South Dakota. Some places, like Deadwood, SD received as much as 48 inches.

On Wednesday, the NWS named Tropical Storm Karen. Moving north across the Gulf of Mexico, it threatened coastal communities from Louisiana to Florida with heavy rain and storm surge flooding.  Luckily, however, the storm was downgraded to a rainstorm by the time it came ashore.

By Friday, the cold air that produced the blizzard in the northern plains collided with warm moist air to the east and unleashed severe thunderstorms across the region.  They, in turn, spawned numerous tornadoes.  One of the hardest hit areas was Wayne, NE where an EF-4 twister with winds measured up to 170-mph tore through the town.  While widespread property damage and numerous injuries were reported, there were no fatalities.

Over the weekend, powerful Santa Ana winds blasted southern California with gusts reaching 90-mph in some areas.  These warm, dry winds helped fuel a large wildfire in San Diego County.

While extreme weather events are not unusual in this country, having such a large number and wide variety happen more-or-less at once is very rare.

Drought Update: Summer 2013

This summer has been marked by heavy rain and even flooding in many parts of the United States.  Long-term drought, however, continues to plague a large section of this country.

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 45% of this nation is in some form of drought. While this number represents improvement for some areas, such as the east and mid-west, the western states remain dry. Conditions of moderate drought or worse cover 77% of that region with 19% suffering under extreme drought.  These numbers are up from this time last year.

As the drought intensifies in the west, it is helping to fuel the region’s numerous wildfires.

droughtImage Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor