Deadly Wildfires Blaze in Northern and Southern California

California, once again, is ablaze with wildfires.

As of Tuesday, three major wildfires – defined as 100 acres or more – are burning in the Golden State.  Collectively, according to National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), they have burned more than 200,000 acres and claimed the lives of 44 people. In terms of property damage, close to 8,000 homes and business have been destroyed and at least another 50,000 are at risk.

Sweeping through the wooded northern California town of Paradise, the death toll from the Camp Fire currently stands at 42. That makes it the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. It surpasses the Griffith Park Fire, which killed 29 people in 1933. Sadly, with 200 people listed as missing, the death toll from this fire is expected to climb even higher in the coming days. It is currently only 30% contained.

At the southern end of the state, the Woolsey and Hill Fires have forced massive evacuations. Raging west of Los Angeles near Malibu and only 30% contained, the Woolsey Fire has charred more than 93,000 acres and destroyed more than 400 structures. The Hill Fire, currently at 85% containment, has scorched upwards of 4,500 acres.

Air quality issues are another concern with these wildfires. Well outside of the burn areas, many people are wearing masks to protect themselves from the smoke and ash carried in the wind.

These huge fires are largely the result of climate whiplash. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, but they have been extreme recently. After years of drought, the state saw increased precipitation over the past two winters that spurred explosive plant growth. Then during this past summer, which was unusually dry, all that vegetation turned to tinder.

Making matters worse, the region’s seasonal winds, known as the Diablo Winds in the north and the Santa Ana Winds in the south, kicked into high gear. Flowing from east to west, downslope from the mountains toward the coast, these winds warm from compression and dry out vegetation even further. They also fan the flames of any fire already burning and can cause it to spread very quickly.

To date, according to NIFC, 1.5 million acres in California have been burned by wildfires in 2018. That number, however, is expected to go up as these fires continue to spread.

The Camp Fire in Northern California seen from space. Credit: NASA

How the Santa Ana Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in southern California.

These strong winds blow warm, dry air across the region at different times of the year, but mainly occur in the late autumn. They form when a large pressure difference builds up between the Great Basin – a desert that covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah – and the coastal region around Los Angeles. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through the passes of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains toward the Pacific. Squeezing through these narrow canyons, the wind is forced to speed up. The Santa Anas, according to the NWS, can easily exceed 40 mph.

Originating in the high desert, the air starts off cool and dry. But as it travels downslope, the air compresses and warms. In fact, it warms about 5°F for every 1000 feet it descends. This dries out the region’s vegetation, leaving it susceptible to any type of spark. The fast-moving winds then fan the flames of any wildfires that ignite.

The Santa Ana winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, CA.

Credit: NOAA/NWS

Wildfires Are Scorching the American West

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

As of Monday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, fifty-nine large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are currently burning in nearly a dozen states. These include Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

One of the newest conflagrations, the Ferguson Fire, is raging just outside of Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. At the height of tourist season, the fire has closed down Highway 140, one of the main entrances to the Park. It has forced the evacuation of several communities along Yosemite’s western edge as well as some hotels inside the Park. Ignited on Friday, the fire has burned more than 9,000 acres and is only 2% contained. Sadly, it has also claimed the life of one firefighter who was battling the flames.

Another hard hit state is Colorado, where seven large fires are burning. The largest is the Spring Creek Fire, which stared at the end of June and has burned more than 108,000 acres in Costilla and Huerfano counties.

These huge fires are being fueled by extremely hot and dry conditions that have left the region’s vegetation susceptible to any type of spark. Just a few days ago, excessive heat advisories were in effect for a large swath of the west as temperatures soared well above average.

Year to date, 3.3 million acres in the US have been charred, which is above average for this point in the season. The country’s worst wildfire year on record was 2015 when more than ten million acres burned.

Ferguson Fire in the Sierra National Forest, outside of Yosemite National Park in California. Credit: InciWeb/BlakeScott

National Drought Update: Early Spring 2018

The northeastern United States received copious amounts of precipitation from the four nor’easters that blasted the region this month. Much of the rest of the country, however, has been parched.

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 31% of the nation is dealing with some form of drought. While this number represents a slight improvement for California, the situation in the southern plains and the southwest has been getting worse. Parts of the Texas Panhandle, western Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas are in exceptional drought, the worst possible category.

Drought conditions have also been building in parts of the southeast. In Florida, according to the state’s Forest Service, dry conditions have fueled more than 1000 wildfires across the peninsula since the beginning of the year.

The US 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.

Credit: US Drought Monitor

How the Santa Ana Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in southern California.

These strong winds blow warm, dry air across the region at different times of the year, but mainly occur in the late autumn. They form when a large pressure difference builds up between the Great Basin – a desert that covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah – and the coastal region around LA. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through the passes of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains toward the Pacific. According to the NWS, the Santa Ana winds can easily exceed 40 mph.

Originating in the high desert, the air starts off cool and dry. But as it travels downslope, the air compresses and warms. In fact, it warms about 5°F for every 1000 feet it descends. This dries out the region’s vegetation, leaving it susceptible to any type of spark. The fast-moving winds then fan the flames of any wildfires that ignite.

The Santa Ana winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, CA.

Credit: NWS

Wildfire Outbreak in Northern California

Northern California is ablaze with wildfires.

As of Thursday, according to CalFire, 22 wildfires are burning in the Golden State. They have scorched over 190,000 acres and forced the evacuation of entire neighborhoods. Officials say at least 26 people have been killed and more than 400 are missing. In terms of property damage, they conservatively estimate that 3,500 homes and structures have been destroyed.

The smoke and ash from these fires are also causing widespread air quality issues. In the Bay Area, well outside of the burn zone, air quality reached historically poor levels this week.

These huge fires are largely the result of climate whiplash. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, but they have been extreme recently. After years of drought, this winter brought the state record amounts of precipitation that spurred explosive new plant growth. Then during the summer, which was the state’s warmest on record and unusually dry, all that vegetation turned to tinder.

Making matters worse, the region’s seasonal winds known as the Diablo Winds began blowing over the weekend. They reportedly reached speeds as high as 70mph in some areas. Blowing east to west, these winds warm from compression as they flow downslope from the mountains towards the coast and dry out vegetation even further. They also fan the flames of any fire already burning and can cause it to spread very quickly.

The Diablo Winds are essentially the same type of air current as the famous Santa Ana winds in southern California. They only really differ in location and name. The Diablo Winds are named for Mount Diablo in the East Bay area and the Santa Ana Winds are the namesake of Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County.

Wildfires are not unusual in California, but this outbreak is considered one of the worst in state history. The exact cause of the fires is still unknown.

Wildfire burns near Glen Ellen, CA. Credit: The SF Chronicle

Hot Temperatures and Strong Winds Fuel Western Wildfires

Summer is wildfire season in the American West and this year it is off to an explosive start.

As of Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, thirty large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are burning in ten western states.  These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

The largest is the Brian Head Fire in southern Utah. It has burned approximately 50,000 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 1500 people. Ignited on June 17, the massive blaze is only 10% contained.

Another hard hit state is Arizona, where six large fires are currently burning. The governor, Doug Ducey, has declared a state of emergency in Yavapai County in response to the Goodwin Fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres near the Prescott National Forest. Local officials have ordered the full evacuation of the town of Mayer, AZ.

These huge fires are being fueled by extremely hot and dry conditions that have left the region’s vegetation susceptible to any type of spark. Just a few days ago, excessive heat advisories were in effect for a large swath of the area as temperatures soared into the triple digits. Now, high winds are fanning the flames and helping the fires to spread.

Year to date, 2.7 million acres in the US have been charred. The country’s worst wildfire season on record was 2015 when more than ten million acres burned.

Brian Head Fire, UT. Credit: Desert News

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.

LA_Fire2016

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