Fire Blogs

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

California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

By Chris Burt
Published: December 20, 2013
California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

In mid-October, and again mid-November, I posted blogs concerning how dry the year had been in California, ending each blog with the optimistic caveat that the wet season was just beginning and there was plenty of time to catch up precipitation-wise before the end of the year. Well, it turns out that was nothing more than optimism. With only 10 days left and the latest forecast models indicating a close to zero chance for any further significant precipitation to fall in the state, it now appears virtually certain to become California’s driest calendar year on record. Needless to say, California is one of the most water hungry places on earth.

As if to add insult to injury a very unusual late-season wildfire broke out in the Big Sur area along California’s central coast on Tuesday December 17th. The fire burned just 1000 acres but 34 homes were lost. This would appear to be the most destructive December wildfire in central or northern California history and the worst fire in all of California this past year (2013) so far as homes lost. Red flag warnings have never previously been issued for this region during the month of December.



An aerial view of the Big Sur fire last Wednesday. Still from video by KRON/NBC News, San Francisco.

Below is a chart of how much rain has fallen at some select California locations since January 1st (as of December 20th). The annual normal and percentage of such so far this year are in the other two columns:



With no more rain forecast for at least the southern two-thirds of the state until the end of the year, it appears that both San Francisco and Los Angeles will end up experiencing their driest calendar years on record. The previous record for San Francisco downtown was 9.00” in 1917 (POR back to Nov. 1849) and for Los Angeles downtown 4.08” in 1953 (with a POR back to 1877). It is simply astounding by how large a margin San Francisco will beat its previous record (a margin of about 40%!) and this for a period of record going back over 160 years, one of the oldest continuous records for precipitation in the U.S.

Many other locations around the state are also likely to record their driest year. Below is a summary of sites in the southern California area and where they stand vis-à-vis record territory:



Since the table was created on December 15th some additional rainfall has fallen at a few of the sites listed including downtown Los Angels with .11”, Burbank with .18”, and Santa Maria with .03”. Notice how Paso Robles (which received no measurable rainfall since December 15th) is on track to beat its former driest year on record by more than 50% and may end up even drier than Death Valley this year (see charts above)! Table produced by NWS-Los Angeles.

It is not just California that has been so dry but also much of the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon has received only 21.08” of precipitation so far this year (as of December 20th) against a normal of 46.10”. Its driest year on record was 1944 when 23.26” was measured (POR to 1891). Snowfall is also running well below average as the map below indicates:



A map of the percentage of average water content of the snow pack as of December 15th across the western U.S. WRCC data.

I will have a comprehensive round up of the annual precipitation totals and records after the New Year.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Australia Endures Another Dangerous Fire Weather Day; Lorenzo Dissipates

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: October 24, 2013
Sydney, Australia and the Blue Mountains have endured a second day of dangerous fire weather conditions without a devastating fire catastrophe ensuing. The high temperature in Sydney on Thursday hit 73°F, with sustained winds of 30 mph gusting to 41 mph, and a humidity as low as 7%. The temperature was nearly 20°F cooler than on Wednesday, but the strong winds and low humidity helped fan the 56 fires still burning across the state of New South Wales. Tragically, a fire-fighting aircraft crashed Thursday during a mission to douse one of the fires, killing the pilot and starting a new fire. The fires have burned more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres), and have a perimeter of about 1,600 km (990 miles), and are being blamed for two deaths and over $97 million in damage. Australia has just had its hottest September on record, and the 12-month period ending in August 2013 set a record for the hottest 12-month period in Australian history. Australia's warmest summer and 3rd warmest winter on record occurred during this 12-month period. It has also been quite dry in the fire region over the past few months, with sol moisture levels in the lowest 10% historically. However, the latest drought statement from the Bureau of Meteorology is not showing that long-term drought conditions exist.


Figure 1. Volunteer Christelle Gilmore cares for 'Phoenix', an orphaned baby Swamp Wallaby burned in the Springwood fires on October 22, 2013 in Castlereagh, Australia. Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images.

Raymond weakens, moves away from Mexico
Tropical Storm Raymond continues to move away from the coast of Mexico, and will no longer bring heavy rains to the country. Recent satellite loops show that Raymond is a poorly-organized tropical storm, with just a modest area of heavy thunderstorms.


Figure 2. Rainfall over Mexico from October 15 - 23 from Hurricane Raymond totaled close to 10" near Acapulco, as estimated by NASA's TRMM satellite. Fortunately, Raymond did not move ashore, or else the 15+" inches of rain that fell offshore would have fallen over land. Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Tropical Storm Lorenzo dies in the Middle Atlantic
Tropical Storm Lorenzo has died in the Middle Atlantic, done in by high wind shear. None of the reliable computer models for tropical cyclone genesis are predicting any new storms developing in the coming five days. During the first week of November, the Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO), a pattern of increased thunderstorm activity near the Equator that moves around the globe in 30 - 60 days, will bring rising air over the Caribbean, increasing the odds of a tropical storm developing then.

Typhoons Francisco and Lekima weaken
Typhoon Francisco has weakened to a tropical storm, and is bringing heavy rains to Japan as it stays offshore and heads northeast, parallel to the coast. Super Typhoon Lekima, which stayed at Category 5 status for a day and a half, has now weakened to a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. Satellite loops show that Lekima is still an impressive typhoon with a prominent eye surrounded by a solid ring of eyewall clouds with very cold cloud tops. Lekima is predicted to recurve to the northeast without affecting any land areas. While Lekima was at peak strength between 12 and 18 UTC on Wednesday, its eye expanded greatly in size while the storm stayed at Category 5 strength, something that is very unusual to see (thanks to Scott Bachmeier of the University of Wisconsin CIMSS for the info and animation.)


Figure 3. MODIS satellite image of Super Typhoon Lekima, taken at approximately 01:05 UTC on October 24, 2013. At the time, Lekima was a Category 5 super typhoon with winds of 160 mph. Image credit: NASA.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Fire Hurricane