Warmest Autumn on Record Increases Wildfire Concern

Warmest Autumn on Record Fuels Abnormal Weather and Wildfires

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that this Autumn was the warmest ever measured, surpassing the record-setting conditions from last year. The normally temperate months of September, October, and November were a staggering 4.1 degrees above average. November in particular was 6.3 degrees above average with every state reporting above-normal monthly average temperatures.

Record Breaking November - Every state reporting above-normal monthly average temperatures. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/

Record Breaking November – Every state reporting above-normal monthly average temperatures. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/

The hot temperatures were accompanied by abnormal precipitation levels across the country. While some areas of the Northwest experienced unprecedented late season rainfall, the majority of the country was blanketed by dry air. Overall the percentage of the US plagued by drought conditions grew from 19.5 at the end of summer to over 31 percent by the end of fall. The Southeast was especially hard hit by the lack of moisture.

Late Season Drought Plagues the US.

Late Season Drought Plagues the US.

Southeast United States Becomes a Tinderbox

Much of the Southeast went nearly two months without measurable precipitation. The lack of precipitation combined with record setting temperatures led to a flare-up of multiple wildfires across the Southern Appalachians. Residents of the region are used to late season wildfires but extreme conditions generated unexpected intensity. Wildfires in the area were not only more numerous, they were considerably larger in scale and ferocity.

At one point in November, RedZone Disaster Intelligence was tracking dozens of different fires across various southeastern states. NOAA reported that this November was the second worst in terms of wildfire devastation since they began tracking events in 2000. The recent Chimney Tops 2 fire is a heartbreaking example of what many fear may be the new normal for wildfires in the region.

Southeastern Wildfires Raged in November.

Southeastern Wildfires Raged in November.

Drought and High Temperatures the New Norm?

With 2016 coming to a close, it appears the year will finish as one of the warmest on record. With average temperatures continuing to climb, it is unclear how this may influence precipitation across the country. The conditions experienced this fall may not become the new norm, but there is a growing concern that a weak La Niña will bring a dryer-than-normal winter to much of the United States. Without the usual winter moisture replinishment, drought conditions will persist, leaving many areas prone to extreme fire weather next year.

Sources:

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/warmer-future-southeastern-wildfires-20912

https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/summary-info

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/12/07/this-fall-was-the-warmest-on-record-2016-will-be-at-least-second-warmest-year/?utm_term=.15c6ce8a1eaa

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/07/wildfire-plagued-fall-warmest-on-record-for-us-says-noaa.html

https://news.google.com/news/story?ncl=dAkC_xO_mS-4ZDMHsoMIfcuMXDUNM&q=warmest+autumn&lr=English&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjEt7Wv1-XQAhWGhVQKHeKzA3oQqgIIJDAA

Gatlinburg Disaster: 700 Structures Lost, 13 Fatalities

Chimney Tops 2 Fire Update

Tough questions were abundant at this morning’s press conference as word fell that a thirteenth victim has been identified in the aftermath of this week’s Chimney Tops 2 fire. Fire and Emergency managers tried to dodge the press’s questions regarding whether they waited too long to evacuate residents in the Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, and whether lives were lost because of it. The truth of the situation is this fire was an anomaly. It was a first of its kind for its fire regime.

The fire creeped around in rocky areas of the steep mountains, south of Gatlinburg, for a few days and warranted fire crews to manage it with an aerial attack. An extreme wind event fanned the fire, knocked down power lines, and created ember starts and abundant spot fires equaling utter chaos. Unfortunately, it appears that with power outages and cell service down, emergency notifications were not received by all residents with disastrous implications. Door to door evacuations by the local authorities couldn’t cover the vast areas in impending danger. The rapidly spread ignited leaf litter and ground fuels from wind gusts reported as high as 87 mph, fueled by prolonged drought, (not surprisingly) from house to house.

The Southern Area Red Team in charge of the damage assessment has updated the Incident Page stating, “There have been a number of confirmed fatalities (13 reported as of this morning) and over 700 confirmed structures lost. This fire hit the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding areas adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park hard as they were preparing for both Christmas and the final few weeks of a bustling tourist season.” It was truly a disaster never before seen by this part of the country and only rarely seen nationwide.

Map of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire and surrounding spot fires in Sevier County, TN


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Outlook

Southern Area Red Team type-1 incident management team has command of the fire and has been focused on public safety, infrastructure, and assessing damages. The fire has not spread since early in the week after the incident area received precipitation with frontal passage Wednesday. Minimal fire behavior and smoldering is expected for the three day fire forecast.  Weather-wise, a ridge of high pressure will produce dry conditions in the fire area through Saturday before wetting rains are forecast to return late in the weekend.

14,000 people remain displaced by the fires, with almost 4000 residents still without power. Some business owners and evacuees have been escorted back into some areas but most remain under mandatory evacuation for now. Three Red Cross Shelters remain active in the area with 219 people still utilizing them. Red Cross has delivered over 10,000 meals this week in Sevier County according to their website. We’re happy to report that the organization has also received hundreds of thousands in relief donations.


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Facts
  • As of: December 2nd, 2016
  • Location: Sevier County, TN
  • Size: 17,859
  • Containment: 0%
  • Fire Behavior: Minimal fire spread and smoldering.
  • Structures Impacted: 1000 (Estimated)
  • Structures Destroyed: 700 (confirmed but expected to rise)
  • Evacuations: Are in place, 14,000 residents and visitors impacted
  • Fatalities: 13
  • Incident Page: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5112/

 

Gatlinburg Devastated by Latest Southern Appalachian Wildfire

Sevier County Fires Summary

High winds, prolonged drought, and multiple fire starts have Sevier County, Tennessee as the latest victim in this fall’s wildfire barrage on the Southern Appalachians. Two alleged arsonists have been taken into custody as a string of new fire ignitions cropped up this weekend during extreme fire conditions. The Sevier County fires exhibited extreme fire behavior across steep, rugged terrain fanned by gusty evening winds. Fire officials are scrambling to corral what’s left of the 14 reported fires that impacted a ten-mile strip near Gatlinburg.

Due to the situation, 14,000 residents and visitors have been evacuated and 2,000 are currently utilizing the three Red Cross Shelters in the county. Along with hundreds of acres of forest, hundreds of structures have been reported as lost in the hills above Gatlinburg. Initial video footage from the area shows widespread devastation.  Fire officials are worried about this evening’s weather forecast mimicking yesterday’s destructive conditions. The latest weather forecasts have potential severe weather and rain moving in with the reported winds which could help or hinder operations.

Sign burned in half near Gatlinburg, TN. Photo Credit: Mark Nagi, Tennessee Department of Transportation

Sign burned in half near Gatlinburg, TN. Photo Credit: Mark Nagi, Tennessee Department of Transportation


Gatlinburg Fires Impact Thus Far

As of 11:00 PST the latest assessment of the area is as follows:

Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts: All buildings except Hughes Hall and Wild Wing survived with little damage. (More info)
Black Bear Falls: TEMA reports it was destroyed, but numerous people have contacted us to tell us that is not the case. We are working to confirm that information.
Chalet Village: Suffered damage, but not destroyed
CLIMB Works: Intact
Cobbly Knob area: About 70 homes destroyed
Cupid’s Chapel of Love: Destroyed
Dollywood: Several cabins damaged or destroyed. DreamMore resort not damaged. Dollywood park has some wind damage but no damage from fire. Park will be closed Wednesday. (More info)
Downtown Gatlinburg: Intact
Elkmont: Intact
Hillbilly Golf: Destroyed
LeConte Lodge: Intact
Little Log Wedding Chapel: Intact
Mysterious Mansion: Destroyed
Ober Gatlinburg: Intact
Park Vista hotel: Intact (More info)
Parrot Mountain: Intact
Pi Beta Phi Elementary School: Intact
Ripley’s Aquarium: Intact. Biologists at the aquarium confirm the animals are OK. (More info)
Wear’s Valley area: About 70 homes destroyed
Westgate Resort: Damaged, but not destroyed


Sources

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1j7dJNKio1QPbslWy4PDNMsQkUes&ll=35.71073212501365%2C-83.54237556637577&z=15

wbir.com

http://www.wbir.com/news/local/gatlinburg-fires-whats-damaged-destroyed-and-intact/357891924

 

CAL FIRE Transitions Out of Fire Season in NorCal

Fire Season Over for NorCal

Since May 1st of this year, CAL FIRE (California’s state fire agency) has been in “fire season” mode.  This designation denotes a state of higher alert in which staffing is increased, burn restrictions are tightened, and wildfire monitoring efforts are intensified.

With the recent mild and wet weather, all Northern CAL FIRE units north of Fresno (15 of the 27 in California) were able to transition away from fire season into what they call “winter preparedness.” This change in the state’s preparedness level is typically preceded by prolonged rains and cooler forecasted temperatures across the region, lowering the threat of wildfire ignitions and allowing officials to reduce alert levels.

In Northern California, a series of storms and forecasted wet conditions have allowed all of the units to down-staff by releasing seasonal fire stations and firefighters. This also means that burn restrictions have ceased, allowing multiple prescribed fire projects to get underway in the region. The change to winter preparedness typically lasts until the following May when conditions begin to worsen as the summer months approach.

In the map below, we show the fifteen units currently out of fire season and the twelve from Southern California still prepared for higher fire activity. As drought conditions continue to have a hold on Southern and Central California, CAL FIRE will maintain fire season status and staffing to meet the continued threat there.

CALFIRE Unit Fire Season status as of November 2016

CALFIRE Unit Fire Season status as of November 2016

Weather Outlook

The outlook for the Northern California region has improved significantly since earlier this year. Much of the region has been in a long-term drought for years, which has lengthened and stregthened each coinciding fire season. Over the course of this year, the worst of the drought has slowly crept south with mostly moderate drought conditions remaining for areas north of Fresno. Part of the reason has been the return of regular precipitation in northern areas. Rain began to fall in early October and a series of storms at the end of October and through November produced heavier precipitation. As winter sets in, more wet weather systems are expected to continue to bring precipitation to the region, leaving large fire potential at minimal levels through next February.


Sources:

CAL FIRE: Fire Season Status

Lake County News

Sierra Star

North Ops Outlook

Fifty Year Anniversary of Loop Fire Tragedy

Loop Fire Recap

This week marks the anniversary of another infamous fire disaster. Two winters of below average rainfall, fuel moistures at critical levels, and multiple months of Santa Ana events lead to a historically unique Southern California autumn in 1966.  A faulty power line sparked a fire before dawn on November 1, 1966 near Slymar, CA in Los Angeles County (near 2016’s Sand Fire).  Abundant Santa Ana winds quickly drove the blaze to 2,000 acres around the steep terrain of Loop Canyon in the Angeles National Forest.  This past Tuesday saw the fifty year anniversary of the Loop Fire tragedy.

While the fire was seemingly under control, two crews entered steep terrain to help further contain the blaze and were surprised by an unexpected rapid flare up and chimney effect with little time for escape. A dozen hotshots of the 31-member crew perished that day. In remembrance, the Angeles National Forest (ANF) and the Cleveland National Forest (CNF) held a commemorative ceremony this week at the El Cariso Regional Park. Hundreds of firefighters were in attendance to remember the fallen. Several survivors spoke to an emotional and somber crowd, according to accounts from the event.

Tragedy in 60 Seconds

According to official reports conducted after the Loop Fire, at the time of the accident the fire was essentially out. It had burned for two thousand acres under the influence of Santa Ana winds, which had become significantly lighter by 2 pm when the El Cariso crew began working the fire. Rich Leak, a surviving crew member described their assignment as “to cold trail the fire’s edge down the ridge line and tie into the County Crews at the bottom.” According to Leak, little fire activity was observed in the area as it appeared there were no active flames on the ridge line they would be working.  He even stated that their main concern while working on the steep mountainside was danger from rocks and rockslides rather than the fire itself.

In attempting to construct a fire line, the crew reached a point on the ridge where following the fire’s edge became unsafe and almost impossible in the steep terrain. Their crew boss “made the decision to cut an indirect line and tie into the dozer line at a different location.” As they moved into this secondary location, “a spot fire started in the ravine below us and all hell broke loose.” Leak eerily likened the moments that followed to being on a charcoal grill, with lighter fluid igniting at once with a “whoosh”, and fast moving shockwave-like flames ensuing.

The official investigation concluded that the crew experienced 30-60 seconds of 2500 degree heat without fire shelters or proper PPE (fire resistant clothing). Ten members of the crew lost their lives in those 60 seconds and two more died later in the hospital due to the burnover. Fifteen of the 19 surviving crew members were also injured by the flash of flames.

The Loop Fire memorial marker in El Cariso Park in Sylmar, CA. (Photo Credit: Stuart Palley)

The Loop Fire memorial marker in El Cariso Park in Sylmar, CA. (Photo Credit: Stuart Palley)

Lessons Learned

In firefighting, sometimes lessons are learned in harsh ways. The explosive Loop Fire accident has led to a clearer understanding of the perils posed by narrow and steep canyons, and how with the slightest change in weather, such canyons can have dangerous chimney-like effects on fire behavior. The official disaster report from the Loop Fire suggested changes in safety protocols still used today when fighting fires in such terrain:

  • Require the use of lookouts and open communication lines (radios).
  • Provide a checklist for downhill line operations.
  • Make “crystal clear” the dangers of working in box canyons and potential chimney fire situations.
  • Standardize equipping all crew members on the fire line with lightweight safety gear and fire protective shelters.

In the wake of the fire, great attention was paid by the wildfire community to the study of fire behavior and methods to predict when and where fire behavior will change rapidly.


Source(s):

Pasadena Star News

WLF Always Remember

Colorado Fire Camp

Personal account from Captain Rich Leak

Wildfire Today

Ten of Our Favorite Wildfire Videos

Following our blog post on how the story of the Esperanza Fire west of Palm Springs is being made into a feature film, we thought we’d point you to ten of our favorite wildfire videos and documentaries from the past few years. Like many wildfire experts, our favorite videos include exciting footage from the fire line showing not only the true power, danger, and humbling awesomeness of a wildfire, but also the courage and skill displayed by the men and women who fight it.

We’re fascinated by time-lapse videos as they showcase fires moving and large smoke columns building. We also enjoy some of the great documentaries made in recent years, many of which cover topics ranging from the history of fighting fires to profiles of the brave wildland crews who work tirelessly to protect life and property. We’re also advocates of a series of excellent informational videos on fire science and defensible space created by Jack Cohen, one of the preeminent researchers in the wildfire industry.


Footage from the front lines

Rim Fire Flight

Amazing lead plane flight along the uncontrolled head of the Rim Fire in the Yosemite area.

 

Geronimo Hot Shots

Awesome GoPro footage of hand crews in the field. 

The Atlantic’ Documentary on them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=106tOoXVsxQ

 

Erskine Damage Drone Footage

Terrible devastation this summer in the Lake Isabella are in Kern County where 309 structures were burned. 

 

Fort McMurray Fire Escape

The video shows residents fleeing the Fort McMurray Fire early in May. The fire burned almost 1.5 million acres and destroyed 2,400 structures.


Time-Lapse Videos

Waldo Fire (Colorado Springs, CO 2012)

 

Pyrocumulous Rey Fire (Santa Barbara County, CA 2016)

 

Soberanes Fire (Big Sur, CA 2016)


Wildfire History

The Big Burn

At a runtime of 45 minutes, this documentary on the major fires of 1910 in Montana highlights the start of the United States Forest Service and wildland firefighting as we know them today. 


Fire Science

Radiant Heat vs. Firebrands

 

Your Home Can Survive a Wildfire

 

Junkins Fire in Custer County, Colorado

Junkins Fire Summary

The Junkins fire started early Monday morning (10/17) in the Junkins Park area of Custer County Colorado during Red Flag Warning conditions. The fire exhibited extreme fire behavior due to dry conditions and 70 mph wind gusts.  Officials moved to evacuate homes in the immediate fire path as the fire quickly burned to over 15,000 acres as of 1:30 pm today (10/18). A type-1 incident management team has been ordered and is expected to take over command of the fire tomorrow morning (10/19/2016).

Junkins Fire Perimeter Map

The Junkins Fire perimeter as of October 18, 2016

Fire Outlook

Officials expect fierce winds to continue through tonight, but the fire’s growth has slowed as firefighters focus on structure protection and building containment lines. There has been some significant progress made on the north side of the fire, and fire officials are hopeful to stop forward progress of the north front overnight. There are four air tankers, seven helicopters, and 115 firefighters on scene, with more resources on the way.

Example Fire Facts

  • As of: October 18th, 2016
  • Location: 11 miles east of Westcliffe, CO
  • Size: 15,751 acres
  • Containment: 0%
  • Fire Behavior: Rapid fire spread through conifers, aspen and grass.
  • Structures Threatened: 281 (reported)
  • Structures Destroyed: 7 (2 homes and 5 outbuildings)
  • Evacuations: 250 homes are under mandatory evacuation and 3,500 homes are in a pre-evacuation status.
  • Incident Page: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5071/
  • News Article: The Gazette

Twelve Weeks Later: Soberanes Fire 100% Contained

Soberanes Fire Recap

The Soberanes Fire in northern California has finally wound down, with officials marking the blaze at 100% contained as of Wednesday evening (10/12).  The fire ignited from an illegal campfire on July 22nd–a full twelve weeks ago–and in the first week, destroyed 57 residences and 11 outbuildings.  Luckily, no other losses have been reported since then.


How Soberanes Compares to Other Fires

The progress of the fire has been mostly stalled for weeks, with fire crews focusing on building containment lines in the troublesome and rugged terrain of the Ventana Wilderness (LPF).  Subsequently, the fire perimeter and acreage has not budged much since late September.  Collectively, the fire has topped a record $250m in suppression costs, dwarfing the previous high from 2002 of $165m (Biscuit Fire). The Soberanes Fire finished its run at 132,127 acres which is good for 17th place in California’s documented history and 6th largest ever in the Los Padres National Forest. The sheer size of the wildfire is apparent in comparison to both the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City.

Soberanes Fire size comparison with SF and NYC

Soberanes Fire size comparison with NYC and SF


Soberanes Fire Facts (10/14)

  • Started: July 22nd, 2016
  • Contained: Oct 12th, 2016 (83 days)
  • Location:  Big Sur, CA
  • Size: 132,127 acres
    • 94,933 acres CA-LPF – 72%
    • 37,194 acres CALFIRE BEU – 28%
  • Containment: 100%
  • Fire Behavior: Interior smoldering with sporadic smoke possible.
  • Structures Threatened: 0
  • Structures Destroyed: 68 (57 primary, 11 outbuildings)
  • Cost to Date: $249.9+ million
  • Incident Page: Inciweb
  • News Article: KSBW News


IMT Assignments

Since the blaze began, seven different incident management teams have been assigned to the storied fire (see list below). California’s IMT2 (Mills) team is expected to see out the remaining 21% of suppression repair and continue to BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) operations.  The full list of IMTs assigned to Soberanes:

  • CAL FIRE Team 4 IC (Derum) taking command on 07/23/2016 at 1200
  • CAL FIRE IMT (Derum) in unified command with CA IMT1 (von Tillow) on 08/05/2016
  • CA IMT1 (von Tillow) in unified command with CAL FIRE IMT (King BEU) 08/19/2016 at 0600
  • CA IMT1 (von Tillow) transferred command to AK IMT1 (Kurth) @ 0700 8/24/2016, No more unified command
  • CA IMT1 (Opliger) will transition on 09/13/2016 at 0600
  • CA IMT2 (Arroyo) assumed command of incident 09/29/2016 at 0800
  • CA IMT2 (Mills) will assume command 10/13/2016 at 0600

Sources:

Inciweb

NIFC

KSBW News

Loma Fire Burns in Santa Cruz Mountains

The Loma fire started Monday afternoon (9/26) along Loma Chiquita Road in Los Gatos, CA and quickly spread along the ridgeline to the north and east. As the fire began growing, it threatened numerous structures and radio towers along Loma Chiquita Ridge. Subsequently, homeowners began to evacuate the area before any official evacuations were put in place simply due to the extreme fire behavior that was being observed. Concern over the fire’s extreme behavior prompted the diversion of fire crews that were originally en route to the Sawmill fire.  Those crews were reassigned to become initial-attack resources on the Loma incident instead. Currently, fire officials are reporting that 7 structures were lost and 300 others are threatened by the blaze. As of midday Tuesday (9/27) the Loma Fire is 2,000 acres and 5% contained.

Loma Fire Perimeter from this morning's Flight

Loma Fire Perimeter from this morning’s IR flight


Loma Fire Outlook

The fire burned overnight and continues to spew smoke in the Santa Cruz Mountains today. The nearby Morgan Hill Webcam is showing the fire growing on the east side of the 3,700 ft. Loma Prieta Peak. As the fire moves into its second burn period, more resources are set to arrive to help contain the blaze. Fortunately, the hot and dry weather of the past few days Santa Ana influence will subside tomorrow. Coastal areas will see onshore flow return today and a cooling trend will arrive Wednesday and Thursday with a Pacific trough approaching the area. As a result, temperatures will substantially drop, RH levels will rise, and the extreme fire conditions should diminish (though strong NW winds are set to arrive). Furthermore, the forecast calls for a return to autumn-like conditions with highs in the 60s and 70s by the end of the week.

Loma Fire Facts

  • As of: 1400 PDT, September 27, 2016
  • Location: Los Gatos, CA
  • Size: 2,000 acres
  • Containment: 5%
  • Fire Behavior: Rapid fire spread through tall grass and brush in steep, rugged terrain.
  • Structures Threatened: 300 (reported)
  • Structures Destroyed: 7 (estimated)
  • Evacuations: Are in place
  • Incident Page: Cal Fire Incident Page
  • News Article: SF Chronicle
  • Live Webcam: http://www.morganhillwebcam.com/

Sources:

Weather Underground

CALFIRE

NIFC.GOV