Fire Blogs

U.S. Wildfire Season as of August 12th

By Chris Burt
Published: August 12, 2014
U.S. Wildfire Season as of August 12th

It has been one of the hottest summers on record for the Pacific Northwest and especially for central and western Washington State where the largest wildfire on record (for the state) has finally been almost 100% contained. However, in spite of the devastation in Washington, the U.S. fire season has (so far) burned ‘only’ 2,533,648 acres, which is just 51% of the 10-year running average for this time of the year.

The temperature reached a daily record 96° in Seattle, Washington yesterday (August 11th) as the blazing hot summer of 2014 in Washington continued. July was Spokane’s 2nd hottest month on record (any month) with an average monthly temperature of 75.7°, just shy of the all-time record of 75.9° set back in July 1906. Ironically, firefighters announced yesterday that they have now almost fully contained the Carlton Complex fire which was ignited by lightning on July 14th and burned 256,108 acres and 312 homes (with one fatality) in an area of central Washington about 200 miles east of Seattle. It was the largest wildfire in the state’s history.



The Carlton Fire Complex bears down on Brewster, Washington on July 18th. Twitter image, photographer not identified.



Pyrocumulus form above the Carlton Complex fire as seen in this aerial image during the early stages of the fire’s development in mid-July. Photo from AP.

All-told, wildfires have now burned 323,721 acres in Washington so far this summer with many still active as the map below illustrates.



Map of locations of active major wildfires burning as of August 12th. As can be seen, virtually all of them are occurring in the Pacific Northwest. The color coding is related to the priority and type of incidence teams each fire is being given by the respective agencies involved with each threat. Map from the National Interagency Fire Center based in Boise, Idaho.

As of August 12th here is a list of acres burned in each state:

WASHINGTON: 323,721
CALIFORNIA: 163,178
OREGON: 140,249
IDAHO: 85,241
MONTANA: 1,655

What is surprising is that California has not yet had a truly catastrophic wildfire (so far) given the record dry conditions and extensive lightning activity. Just yesterday (August 11th) some 11,678 lightning strikes were recorded as monsoonal moisture edged into the eastern portion of the state.



Lightning strikes over California on August 11th. Although the source of the storms that produced all this activity were of seasonal monsoon origins, very little precipitation reached the ground making for extremely dangerous fire conditions. Map from BLM and NWS-Sacramento.

The largest active fire in California at the moment is the so-called Bald Fire Complex (#19 on the map) in the Lassen National Forest where 39,736 acres have so far burned. Of course, the worst of California’s fire season has yet to get under way since September through November is traditionally the most dangerous time of the year fire-wise. Despite, the sobering statistics, the year 2014 has, as of August 12th, seen the 2nd lowest amount of acreage burned nation-wide over the past 10 years. Since 2004, only 2010 saw fewer acres burned.



Table of annual number of fires and acres burned as of August 12th over the past 10 years. This year is running just 51% of average so far as acreage burned and 71% of average total number of fires. Given the drought situation in California it is unlikely that this pattern will continue into the fall. Table from National Interagency Fire Center. Statistics for acreage burned every full year going back to 1960 can found here on the NIFR web site.

The fire situation is much worse in Canada where some 8.5 million acres have burned this summer in the country’s Northwest Territories. Angela Frtiz reports this from the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post. Sweden is also suffering an extreme wild fire event as this report details.


Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian
Categories:Extreme Weather Fire

First 100°F Temperature on Record in the Baltics

By Chris Burt
Published: August 5, 2014
First 100°F Temperature on Record in the Baltics

The 37.8°C (100.0°F) temperature observed at Ventspils, Latvia on August 4th was the first time on record that a reading of 100°F has been measured in any of the Baltic nations (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania). The heat wave has also affected Poland, Belarus, and Sweden where a massive forest fire, said to be the worst in the nation's modern history, rages out of control.



It has been a warm past month in Ventspils, Latvia with 10 out of the past 30 days reaching 30°C (86°F) or more. The normal daily maximum temperature for July and early August is just 19°C (66°F). The 36.6°C (97.9°F) on August 3rd was a new Latvian national record only to be shattered the following day with the 37.8°C (100.0°F) reading. Climate table from OGIMET.

The record was especially unusual since Ventspils (also known as Ventspili) is a coastal location situated right along the shores of the Baltic Sea. The previous Latvian record of 36.4°C (97.5°F) on August 4, 1943 (same date!) was measured at Daugavpils which is an inland location near the border of Belarus and where hotter temperatures might be expected vis-à-vis a coastal location. The reason for the excessive temperature at Ventspils, this time around, was a strong offshore flow caused by a high-pressure system centered over northeast Russia and Finland.



A strong surface high pressure centered over Finland and northeast Russia (bottom map) along with a 210-meter positive height anomaly (top map) created a southeast (offshore) flow over the Baltic nations early this week leading to the record temperatures at the Latvian coastal location of Ventspils. Maps of 12Z ECMWF models for August 4th courtesy of Nick Wiltgen at The Weather Channel.

Aside from Latvia, record or near-record temperatures have also been observed in Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden. The capital city of Minsk in Belarus broke its all-time heat record on August 3rd with a 35.6°C (96.1°F) reading which surpassed its former record of 35.0°C (95.0°C). The top temperature in all of Belarus was 36.5°C (97.7°F) at Ma’rina Gorka (also on August 3rd) which was short of the national record of 38.9°C (102.0°F) set at Gomel on August 8, 2010. In Lithuania it reached 36.6°C (97.9°F) at Klaipeda on August 3rd (short of the national record of 37.5°C/99.5°F set at Zarasai on July 30, 1994) and in Estonia top honor went to Niqula with 33.5°C (92.3°F) on August 4th, well short, however, of the national record of 35.6°C (96.1°F) at Voru on August 11, 1992. The heat wave has also affected Poland where temperatures as high as 35.4°C (95.7°F) were observed at Ustka on August 3rd.

Late word from blog reader Blair Trewin (Australian Bureau of Meteorology) notes that the Swedish met service (SMHI) has reported at temperature of 35.1°C (95.2°F) at the town of Falun on August 4th and that this is the hottest August temperature observed in Sweden since 1992. Sweden’s national record is 38.0°C (100.4°F) set at Ultuna on July 9, 1933 and also at Malilla on June 29, 1947. A massive 15,000-hectare (37,000 acre) forest fire in central Sweden, described in the press as “the largest in modern [Swedish] history” is threatening the town of Norberg (population 4,500). One death has so far been attributed to the conflagration.



This large forest fire in central Sweden is threatening the evacuation of the entire population of the town of Norberg (population 4,500). Photo credited to TT, ‘The Local: Sweden’s news in English’.

KUDOS: Thanks to Maximiliano Herrera, Blair Trewin, and Nick Wiltgen for their contributions to the data and blog reader barbamz for news about the Swedish fire.

Christopher C Burt
Weather Historian





Record May Heat and Wildfires Continue in California; Extreme Flooding in Serbia

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: May 16, 2014
More record May heat seared Southern California on Thursday, and fierce Santa Ana winds continued to fan nine wildfires in San Diego County. The fires had destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses and burned more than 15 square miles by Thursday evening, causing more than $20 million in damage. Los Angeles Airport hit 97° on Thursday, which is tied for the hottest May temperature on record, said the NWS in Los Angeles (note, though, that NOAA's Threaded Extremes website lists the all-time May record for LAX at 91°.) All-time record May heat was also recorded on Thursday at Santa Maria (105°.) In Downtown Los Angeles, the mercury hit 102° on Thursday, falling short of the all-time May record of 103° set on May 25, 1896. Temperatures is coastal Southern California are forecast to be 10 - 15° cooler on Friday than on Thursday, and the hot offshore Santa Ana winds will no longer be blowing. This should allow firefighters to gain the upper hand on most of the fires. A steady cool-down will occur over the weekend, with a moist onshore flow of air significantly reducing the fire danger.


Figure 1. A wildfire burns near a home on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in San Marcos, Calif. Flames engulfed suburban homes and shot up along canyon ridges in one of the worst of several blazes that broke out Wednesday in Southern California during a second day of a sweltering heat wave. (AP Photo)

100% of California in severe to exceptional drought
Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor report showed grim news for California: 100% of the state is now in severe or higher drought, up from 95% the previous week. Though just 25% of California is classified as being in the highest level of drought, "Exceptional", Erin McCarthy at the Wall Street Journal estimates that farms comprising 53% of California's $44.7 billion market value lie in the Exceptional drought area. During the most recent California rainy season, October 2013 through April 2014, the state received 10.44" of precipitation, which is just 51% of average for the period, and the third lowest such total on record. California typically receives less than 10% of its annual precipitation between May and September, and the coming hot and dry summer in combination with a severely depleted Sierra snowpack will cause a severe fire season and significant agricultural damages. The fifth and final snow survey of the season on May 1 found that the statewide snowpack’s water content--which normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and cities--was only 18% of average for the date. Already, the 2014 drought has cost the state at least $3.6 billion in agricultural damages, the California Farm Water Coalition estimates. CAL FIRE recently announced it had hired 125 additional firefighters to help address the increased fire threat due to drought conditions.



Figure 2. True-color MODIS satellite image of Extratropical Storm Yvette taken on Thursday afternoon, May 15, 2014. Image credit: NASA.

Extreme Flooding in Southeast Europe
In Southeastern Europe, torrential rains on May 14 - 15 in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have caused some of their worst flooding ever recorded, killing at least three people and leaving thousands homeless. Extratropical Storm Yvette, a strong and slow-moving upper-level low pressure that cut off from the jet stream, lingered over the region for two days, pulling up copious amounts of moisture from the Mediterranean Sea and generating torrential rains. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic declared a state of emergency in 18 towns and cities, including the capital, Belgrade. "This is the greatest flooding disaster ever. Not only in the past 100 years; this has never happened in Serbia's history," he told a news conference. "In three days, as much rain fell as normally falls in three months," said Goran Mihajlovic, of Serbia's Meteorological Institute. "Statistically, such rainfall happens once in 100 years," he added.


Video 1. A severed bridge floats down the Bosna River in Bosnia and Herzegovina on May 14, 2014. Here is a video of the bridge before it was swept away.

"Fishnado" in Sri Lanka
On May 5, 2014, residents of Chilaw, Sri Lanka were surprised by a rain of 50 kg (110 pounds) of live fish, 5 - 8 cm in length. MODIS satellite images from May 5 show an intense string of heavy thunderstorms formed over the island, and it is likely that one of these storms was a supercell thunderstorm that spawned a tornado which sucked up fish out of a nearby river and then spat them out over Chilaw. Such rains of fish are rare but not unheard of; as I outlined in my blog post on the ridiculous "Sharknado" movie that aired last year, there have been numerous reports of waterspouts or tornadoes picking up fish out of the sea or out of lakes and creating a "rain of fish." For example, hundreds of perch bombarded residents of the small Australian outback town of Lajamanu in 2010. In the U.S., thousands of small fish, frogs and crayfish fell from the sky during a rainstorm at Magnolia Terminal near Thomasville, Alabama, on the morning of June 28, 1957. Many of the fish were alive and were placed in ponds and swimming pools. An F2 tornado fifteen miles to the south spawned by the outer bands of Hurricane Audrey was likely responsible for getting the creatures airborne. William Corliss' intriguing book, "Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena", has an entire chapter devoted to unusual creatures and objects that have fallen from the sky. He relates that in 1946, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History named E. W. Gudger documented 78 reliable reports of fish falls from all over the world. The largest fish was a large-mouthed bass 9 1/4 inches long, and the heaviest was a six pound fish that fell in India. There were no reports of large, 2000-pound great white sharks, as depicted by "Sharknado", though. Speaking of Sharknadoes, the much-anticipated sequel to "Sharknado", "Sharknado 2: The Second One" is scheduled to hit the air on the Syfy Channel on July 31, 2014. Yes, once again, bloodthirsty man-eating tornado-hurled sharks will terrorize a major American city--this time, New York. According to deadline.com, The Asylum, which is working on the sequel, has come up with a plan to use Indiegogo to raise $50,000 to create another scene for the new movie. Those who contribute to the campaign, which runs through May 30, will get some Sharknado 2 swag and an exclusive window on production, from behind-the-scenes footage to breaking news and advance DVD copies. Al Roker will make a cameo appearance in the film as himself.


Video 2. Villagers collect live fish that rained from the sky on May 5, 2014, in Chilaw, Sri Lanka.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Jeff Masters
Categories:Heat Fire Flood

Record May Heat, Drought, and Fires Scorch California

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: May 15, 2014
Record May heat sent temperatures soaring above 100° in much of Southern California on Wednesday, and fierce Santa Ana winds fanned fires that scorched at least 9,000 acres in San Diego County, forcing thousands to evacuate. Los Angeles Airport hit 96° on Wednesday, which is the hottest May temperature on record NOAA's Threaded Extremes website (though apparently these records are not correct, since NWS Los Angeles says the all-time May record is 97°.) All-time May record heat was recorded at Camarillo (102°) and Oxnard (102°) on Wednesday. In Downtown Los Angeles, the mercury hit 99° on Wednesday, falling short of the all-time May record is 103° set on May 25, 1896. More record heat is forecast on Thursday, and hot offshore Santa Ana winds will bring extreme fire danger.


Figure 1. A firenado in Fallbrook, California at old Highway 395 and Interstate 15 on May 14, 2014. Image credit: Jena Rents via Twitter.


Figure 2. True-color MODIS satellite image of fires burning in Southern California and Northern Mexico on Wednesday afternoon, May 14, 2014. Image credit: NASA.

100% of California in severe to exceptional drought
Today's U.S. Drought Monitor report showed grim news for California: 100% of the state is now in severe or higher drought, up from 96% the previous week. Though just 25% of California is classified as being in the highest level of drought, "Exceptional", Erin McCarthy at the Wall Street Journal estimates that farms comprising 53% of California's $44.7 billion market value lie in the Exceptional drought area. Averaged state-wide, the Palmer Drought Severity Index during April 2014 was the second worst on record, behind 1977. For the 12-month period ending in April, drought conditions in California for 2013 - 2014 were also the second most severe on record, slightly below the 2008 - 2009 drought. To break the drought, most of the state needs 9 - 15" or precipitation to fall in one month. This amounts to more than a half-year's worth of precipitation for most of the state.


Figure 3. The May 13, 2014 U.S. Drought Monitor showed 100% of California in severe or higher drought, with 25% of the state in the highest level of drought, "Exceptional." Image credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

California's rainy season is over
The California October through April rainy season is now over. Between October 2013 and April 2014, the state received 10.44" of precipitation, which is just 51% of average for the period, and the third lowest such total on record. Going back to 1895, the record low mark was set in 1976 - 1977, when the state got just 34% of its average rainy season precipitation. California typically receives less than 10% of its annual precipitation between May and September, and the coming hot and dry summer in combination with a severely depleted Sierra snowpack will cause a severe fire season and significant agricultural damages. The fifth and final snow survey of the season on May 1 found that the statewide snowpack’s water content--which normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and cities--was only 18% of average for the date. Already, the 2014 drought has cost the state at least $3.6 billion in agricultural damages, the California Farm Water Coalition estimates. CAL FIRE recently announced it had hired 125 additional firefighters to help address the increased fire threat due to drought conditions.


Video 1. Aerial views of the Southern California fires from Reuters. Thanks to wunderground member Skyepony for posting this link in my blog comments.

Related Posts
California Drought/Polar Vortex Jet Stream Pattern Linked to Global Warming, my April 16, 2014 post

I've done four posts this year on ways to get more water for the thirsty Southwest:
1) Conservation measures
2) Cloud seeding
3) Desalinization plants
4) Enormous Water Works Programs

Jeff Masters

Categories:Drought Heat Fire

A Quiet But Deadly 2013 U.S. Fire Season

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: December 23, 2013
It was an unexpectedly quiet and deadly year for wildfires in the U.S. in 2013. The 4.2 million acres burned ranked as the 2nd lowest amount in the past ten years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC.) The total number of wildfires was just over 43,100, which was well below the ten-year average of about 68,000 fires, and the lowest number since accurate record keeping began in the early 1980s. According to meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield in an interview with USA Today, total wildfire economic damages during the year were approximately $700 million, or 46% below the 10-year average of $1.3 billion. However, 2013 was the third deadliest wildfire season for firefighters since records began in 1910, with 34 firefighters perishing.





The deadly Yarnell Hill, Arizona fire
On June 30, 2013, the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, took the lives of 19 firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department's interagency Granite Mountain Hotshots. Close watch was on the weather during the fire, as temperatures hit 100° and winds gusted over 20 mph. However, a line of thunderstorms caused winds to increase and shift, gusting to over 40 mph, and changing direction from west-southwest to north-northeast. This rapid change in the winds caught the firefighters off guard, allowing the fire to quickly grow from 300 acres to 2,000 acres. It was this wind event with persistent hot temperatures and dry surface conditions that caused the erratic wildfire behavior and killed the 19 out of 20 Hotshots crew.


Video 1. The June 30, 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona as seen from the air.


Figure 1. The Yarnell Hill Fire was the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history. Image credit: ecowest.org.

Didn't they say something about a record-breaking fire year? What happened?!
During the winter of 2012 and 2013, the nation was in the worst drought conditions since 2000 due to below normal snow pack across the West, according to the US Drought Monitor. The snowfall maps below show the percent of average snow pack over the Four Corners and Great Basin, respectively, measured April 1st, 2013 by the NRCS.





The chart below shows percent of drought conditions across the Contiguous U.S, with Exceptional Drought in dark red, Extreme Drought in red, Severe Drought in orange, Moderate Drought in tan, and Abnormally Dry in yellow.



As you can see from this chart, we started off 2013 at nearly the driest conditions across the U.S. since 2000, with nearly 80% of the country abnormally dry and over 6% in exceptional drought conditions. Due to the dry conditions, fire management agencies were expecting an exceptionally active fire season, since dry conditions in 2011 and 2012 caused historic fire years. (For example, the massive Wallow Fire in 2011 burned 538,000 acres in AZ and NM; the Whitewater-Baldy fire in 2012 was the largest single fire in New Mexico's history, at 297,845 acres; and the devastating 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado was the most destructive fire in state history, with 346 homes burned.)

So what happened? During the summer of 2013, the Southwest benefited from a much wetter and more active monsoon season than in previous two years, which led to one of their wettest summers on record. For example, Colorado and the Four Corners reported record to near record wet conditions from July - November. Additionally, an active weather pattern across the Southeast U.S. brought near record wet conditions to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Traditionally, these two regions account for a large percentage of the annual acreage burned for the US. As you can see from the the NOAA statewide rank anomaly map below, for July - November, California was one of the few states that was dry during the peak part of fire season. This was a result of the quasi-stationary ridge of high pressure over the East Pacific for the majority of the year.



To a certain degree, luck was a significant component this year, as a major weather event like the 2008 Lighting Bust or the 2007 Santa Ana wind event simply did not occur in 2013. The Rim Fire, which burned into Yosemite National Park and ended up being the third largest wildfire in California history, was caused by a hunter's illegal campfire. The fire eventually consumed over a quarter million acres, and shows what the potential of the 2013 California wildfire season could have been if weather played a greater role.

Have a great Christmas, everyone, and I'll be back on Friday with a new post.

Jeff Masters, with major help from wunderground's fire weather expert, Kari Strenfel