infrared view of southern plains wildfires

Southern Plains See Record Wildfire Activity

Southern Plains Wildfires

This week, unprecedented fire activity swept through the southern plains. Multiple counties of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas saw critical fire weather conditions Sunday through Wednesday that fanned dozens of fires. Huge smoke plumes stretching for miles have been visible on NASA’s earth imagery for the area. As of March 9, seven people have died, five firefighters have been injured, thousands have been forced to flee their homes, heavy agricultural damage has been incurred, and more than a million acres have collectively burned.

The chaotic fire activity began this weekend when multiple starts forced residents from their homes in Central Kansas. The Highlands and Jupiter Hills fires in Hutchinson burned more than 6,000 acres between them. In the Texas Panhandle, three large fires broke out over the past three days, burning over 400,000 acres. The Perryton fire was the largest at 318,056 acres, rapidly spreading through grass and brush. Another Texas fire, the Lefors East Fire, ultimately claimed the lives of three of the seven reported deaths.

Roughly 60 miles to the north, three major fires burned along the Kansas and Oklahoma border, totaling another 800,000 between them. The three fires were merged into one, now called the ‘Northwest Oklahoma Complex Fire’. The fire is comprised of the Starbuck, Selman and the 283 fires. Authorities said the fires in Kansas and Oklahoma were actually the largest in the histories of both states.

On Wednesday (March 8), Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 22 counties affected. These historic fires can be seen in the top of the NASA imagery below. RedZone has used the imagery and MODIS heat detections to estimate the fires’ perimeters, as none of the fires have had official perimeters released.

March 7th view of Southern Plains Wildfires

NASA Imagery shows fires spewing smoke across the Southern Plains on Tuesday, March 7th

 

Southern Plains Fire Outlook

Wednesday marked the end of the critical fire danger period for the Southern Plains. There will, however, continue to be RH minimums in the teens (but light winds) for at least one more day in counties of western Oklahoma and the northern Texas Panhandle. The area had been dealing with low RH minimums, poor overnight recoveries, dry fine fuels, and breezy winds. A change in weather conditions will arrive Thursday bringing relief in the form of higher RH and potential for wetting rains. Nevertheless, a type-1 Incident Management Team (Dueitt) is already in route to take over command of NW Oklahoma Complex. The weather break is expected through next week and should reduce the fire concern and help aid in control and containment.

Historically, the spring wildfire season in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma can be very active. High fine dead fuel loading is already present and has been supporting large fire growth in Texas and Oklahoma since the start of the year. For the region, a longer than normal spring fire season is anticipated due to current drought, fuel conditions, and predicted warmer and drier than average weather. In turn, the regional fire managers caution that future weather systems could return this week’s fiery conditions to the region.

Regional Fire Statistics

  • As of: March 9th, 2017
  • Location: Southern Kansas, Panhandle of Texas, & Oklahoma
  • Size: 1,000,000+ acres
  • Number of Large Fires: 12
  • Fire Weather: Rapid fire spread through tall grass, agricultural areas, and brush.
  • Structures Threatened: 10,000+
  • Structures Destroyed: 13 Residences, 23 outbuildings
  • Evacuations: Are in place
  • News Article: CBS News

Sources

CBS News, NASA, NBC News, wideopencountry.com, Southern GACC

Trail Fire in Miami-Dade Causes Smokey Start to the Week

The Trail Fire started Sunday afternoon, March 5th, in West Miami-Dade County, FL, and quickly blanketed the surrounding area with heavy smoke.  The fire prompted the closure of Southwest 8th Street between Southwest 137th Avenue and Krome Avenue due to lack of visibility in the area. As of Sunday night, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue reported that the road was back open.

Extra units remain on scene due to the potential for strong and gusty winds coupled with dropping humidity in the area. As of Monday morning, March 6th, the fire had grown to 1,065 acres with 50% containment reported. The Florida Fire Service feels confident they are gaining the upper hand on the Trail Fire. At this time, the cause of the fire remains unknown.

Trail Fire Location west of Miami-Dade, FL.

Trail Fire Location west of Miami-Dade, FL.

Trail Fire Area Weather Outlook

Much of Southern Florida is presently under a Red Flag Warning through midnight EST Monday, March 6th. Over the next few days, the area will experience strong winds out of the east with gusts over 30 mph at times. Also, local relative humidity levels will steadily increase through the end of the week, with 20-40% chances of rain showers.

For current weather at the fire’s location, please visit Weather Underground.

Read Further

This is an ongoing incident. Please visit the news links below for further details and the most up to date information regarding this fire.  RedZone will continue to update this post if relevant information becomes available.

nasa heat shields

NASA Heat Shields Set to Save Firefighters’ Lives

One of the worst firefighter tragedies in history compelled NASA researcher, Mary Beth Wusk, to help develop a better emergency fire shelter. Wusk saw a news article on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013, where a team of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters was overrun with fire. The team deployed their emergency fire shelters, but unfortunately did not survive. Wusk thought the needs of an advanced fire shelter matched the needs of a project she was currently working on at NASA: Flexible thermal protection systems for space vehicle re-entry.

After some initial research and email correspondence, Wusk and co-researcher, Anthony Calomino, were put in touch with the Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Center. It turns out the Forest Service was already searching for new materials to construct an improved emergency fire shelter. NASA and the Forest Service formed a joint team, called CHIEFS (Convective Heating for Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters). CHIEFS began testing materials and pattern designs with the goal of putting a new design into service by 2018.

NASA heat shields

Real-world test of the new Emergency Fire Shelter prototype during a controlled burn

 

The Future of NASA Heat Shields in Firefighting

Initial test results proved that the materials performed well, but the design itself had some flaws. Flames were still able to penetrate the shelter via tiny seams in the material or under the bottom.  Though NASA’s contribution to the project is coming to an end, the Forest Service is continuing to evaluate additional designs using the NASA developed materials. The Forest Service plans to test these designs this coming fire season. They are hoping the winning design will be ready for firefighter use by their 2018 goal.

 

 

NASA Video on the new Emergency Shelter Technology

 

 

History of the Emergency Fire Shelter

Innovation Out of Tragedy

Firefighting remains a dangerous occupation, and on occasion firefighters still pay the ultimate sacrifice. Our country has a longstanding history of learning from our tragedies, and planning how to prevent them from happening in the future.  The Loop Fire near Sylmar, California, in 1966 is an example of a deadly wildfire which led to a revolution in fire policy and safety protocols.  That fire, which took the lives of 12 firefighters, yielded greater understanding and safety awareness of the perils posed by certain types of woodland terrain.  It also prompted requirements related to lookouts, checklists, and equipment standards that are still in use today.

 

Sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/nasa-works-with-us-forest-service-to-improve-fire-shelters

https://www.nasa.gov/langley/nasa-technology-may-help-protect-wildland-firefighters

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarnell_Hill_Fire

http://www.latimes.com/science/la-na-nasa-fire-shelters-20151026-story.html

Series of Tornadoes Ravage Gulf States

Outbreak of Tornadoes

In the early morning hours of January 21st, a band of severe weather moved into the Gulf of Mexico region, producing a number of deadly tornadoes.  More than 20 funnel touchdowns were reported in total. The worst tornado of the day hit near Purvis, Mississippi, and was rated EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale which rates tornado intensity.  The funnel itself was nearly 900 yards wide, and the storm cut a path length of over 30 miles.  Sadly, four people died in this storm, and the number of homes and businesses that were damaged is still being assessed.

The following day (Jan 22), the Storm Prediction Center issued a High-Risk Severe Weather Event for the entire Gulf Coast region, the first such warning since 2014. In the subsequent 24-hour period, eight more tornadoes touched down.  The worst of the storm system decimated twenty homes with a tornado (estimated > EF2) impacting a trailer park near Adel, Georgia. Survivors described the early morning chaos as “horrific”, with trailers apparently being tossed like rag dolls by the twister.  To date, 15 people are confirmed to have died within Southern Georgia over the weekend.

By January 23rd, the storms weakened, though two more tornadoes were reported in Florida. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported and only minor damage to a pier and a mobile home park was confirmed.

Government Assistance to Affected Areas

A state of emergency was declared in Mississippi and Georgia in the aftermath of the weekend’s severe weather. FEMA has deployed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.  The Red Cross also deployed to Georgia on January 22nd to assist in relief efforts. Freshly sworn-in President Trump has promised relief assistance to the affected areas and also offered “our sincere condolences for the lives taken”.

Weekend Severe Weather Facts

  • Timeline: January 21-23
  • Locations: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida
  • Number of Tornadoes: 34+
  • Highest Reported Winds: 145 mph
  • Casualties: 20+
  • Damages: Estimated $200 Million
  • News Article: WunderBlog

Sources:

NOAA, Wunderground, Storm Prediction Center

Atmospheric River Brings Heavy Snow and Rain to California

California started 2017 off with an extremely active weather pattern. Since January 3rd, an “atmospheric river” has brought heavy rain and snow to much of the state. Ski areas within the Sierra Nevada mountain range are reporting close to record snow totals (Mammoth Mountain 101″ of snowfall, Heavenly 114″ and Squaw Valley 94″).

The lower elevations are receiving significant rainfall as well, causing some rivers to overflow.  Area lakes are nearing capacity, prompting officials to expel extra water in preparation for runoff from higher elevations. Though Southern California has not received as much rainfall as the Northern portions of the state, they continue to see rainfall totals in the .5″ to 1.0″ range per storm. Winter storms have now accounted for 5 deaths in Northern California. The forecast calls for January 10th and 11th to be the heaviest snow and rainfall period of the recent storms.

atmospheric river

An atmospheric river is a narrow corridor or filament of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere.

Far-reaching Effects

Since January 1st, officials in Lake Tahoe are reporting a rise in water level of roughly 1 foot, which is equal to about 33.6 billion gallons of water. Down in the Sacramento Valley, the state Water Resources Division had to open the gates of a 100-year-old levee in order to alleviate rising water levels. This was no small task, as each of the dam’s 48 doors had to be opened up manually.

Officials are expecting numerous avalanches in prone areas due to new snowfall on an already heavy snowpack. Avalanche warnings currently extend from as far north as Mt. Shasta to as far south as Mt. Whitney.  Mammoth Mountain Ski area had to stop operations over the weekend due to blizzard conditions and thunderstorms over the ski resort which could have put patrons at risk.

What is and Atmospheric River?

Sounding like something out of a science fiction novel about time travel, an atmospheric river is a narrow corridor or filament of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere.  When these “rivers in the sky” make landfall, they often release this water vapor in the form of heavy rain or snow.  The most common of such meteorological phenomena is a Pineapple Express, the name given to the warm water vapor plumes that originate over Hawaii and follow the jet stream northeast toward California. Many of California’s major flooding events have historically been a product of an atmospheric river.

Sources:

 

Fire Causes Evacuations in Valparaíso, Chile

Valparaíso Fire

On the afternoon of January 2nd, around 400 people were forced to evacuate Valparaíso, a coastal port city in central Chile, due to a forest fire that entered a hillside neighborhood. Local officials believe the fire began at a fisherman’s club and then traveled into the residential area.  As of Tuesday morning, January 3rd, around 100 homes were estimated destroyed with another 500 still at risk, as smoke continues to climb into the skies above the town.

Thus far, no deaths have been reported and the 19 minor injuries are thought to be mostly due to smoke inhalation. News footage shows harrowing video of citizens carrying a variety of items out of their homes, hoping some will be salvageable, including mattresses, entertainment centers, and appliances.

Valparaíso fire burns hillside of homes

Hillside of homes burned Monday, January 2nd, 2017.

Active History of Wildfires

This area of Chile is no stranger to the threat of wildfire. It regularly has an active fire season beginning in November, peaking in January or February, and then decreasing around April. Typically, nearly all wildfires in this region are caused by humans, as lightning and other traditional natural causes are not prevalent in the area.

Chile has also received significantly less rainfall in the last year due to the transition from El Niño to La Niña. The current drought (referred to as megasequía, or ‘mega-drought’) is the longest and most extensive drought in Chilean history, now spanning the past 6 years. The arid weather further dries out the fuels, making any wildland fire a potentially fast-growing danger to surrounding towns.

The 2014 Great Fire of Valparaíso

April of 2014 saw one of the more notable fires in the area’s history.  What is now commonly known as the “Great Fire of Valparaíso” burned across an unofficial landfill area into surrounding vegetation and residential areas.  Over 3 square miles (nearly 2,000 acres) burned, destroying more than 2,500 homes and leaving an estimated 11,000 people displaced.  An additional 6,000 people were forced to evacuate.  Fifteen people were killed and ten reported serious injuries.  The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Hillside view of the Great Fire of Valparaíso, April 12th, 2014.

Hillside view of the Great Fire of Valparaíso, April 12th, 2014.

To read further details on the active wildfire history of Chile, please visit the sources below.

Sources:

California in Severe Drought!… Or is it?

It’s no secret that California has been in a major drought for the last five years.  This has resulted in larger and more aggressive wildfires during that time, keeping firefighters busy and resulting in increased levels of acreage burned.  However, the California drought conditions are actually better than some experts predicted, and metrics other than rain and snowfall levels may indicate impending recovery.

California drought 2015 vs 2016

2015 vs 2016 conditions, Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

Complex Water Resources

Most of California has a naturally dry climate, and it relies on a complex system of aqueducts, aquifers, and reservoirs to transport and store water resources. As such, the state of the drought from a human-use perspective can be gauged by how full the reservoirs are compared to historical averages.

California drought measured by Reservoir Levels

California Reservoir Levels, Source: California Department of Water Resources

As the map depicts, many California reservoirs are at or near historical average levels. Also, these levels do not yet take into account the snowpack melts during the spring season, which should increase the reservoir levels even further. While California is far from having a comfortable amount of water to survive future potential droughts, this wet season should provide at least a temporary reprieve from the drought conditions and restrictions.

La Niña Less Severe than Anticipated

The El Niño event in 2015 which was expected to be one of the strongest on record resulted in little rainfall to ease the dry conditions. An El Niño event is marked by warmer-than-usual waters in the mid-latitudes of the Pacific Ocean, and often leads to excess rainfall across the West Coast. El Niño events are often followed by La Niña events, which are very dry and lead to drought. Fortunately, 2016 is proving to be much wetter than a typical La Niña event and is even producing moisture that is helping to mitigate drought conditions rather than worsen them.

Why the California Drought Matters

The ongoing California drought has caused major ecological damage, led to severe water use restrictions, and contributed to major fire seasons. While this may seem like an issue specific only to Californians, the drought has ripple effects on the entire country.

California produces a majority of the fresh produce consumed nationwide. Seventy percent of total fruit and tree nut production and 55 percent of vegetables come from the state. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of California’s water resources on an average year, and a lack of water has led to lower crop yields and higher-priced produce nationwide.

Sources:

California’s Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System

California Sees Largest Drought-Free Patch Since 2013

California Drought Farm and Food Impacts

 

Sage Fire in Ventura County Determined to Be Human Caused

Sage Fire near Simi Valley

Around 2:30 pm on Tuesday, December 20th, a brush fire broke out on a neighborhood hillside in Simi Valley, California, near Los Angeles. The Sage Fire threatened homes just south of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, off Wood Ranch Parkway and Long Canyon Road. Several roads were closed, and the children in the nearby Wood Ranch Elementary’s after school program were bussed to another school.

Sage Fire burn scar from December 20, 2016.

Sage Fire burn scar from December 20, 2016.

Helicopters made several water drops to assist ground crews with structure protection and ground efforts toward containment. Within a couple of hours, the crews had stopped the fire’s forward progress at 61 acres, and by Wednesday the 21st, the fire was 100% contained. No structure damage or injuries were reported and the road closures had been lifted.

Investigation complete

Depending on the complexity and location of the fire, investigations into the cause can often take significant time.  The cause of the Sage Fire however was quickly determined, mainly due to an eye witness account.  Soon after the fire broke out, a nearby homeowner saw two workmen attempting to put it out, smothering it with dirt and trying to create a fire break. This witness’ statement coupled with observed fire behavior and a known starting location assisted investigators in reaching a conclusion quickly–that the fire was accidentally started by sparks from these workmen repairing a metal fence.

Rain in the forecast

The upcoming weather forecast for the days following the fire indicate high chances of rain for multiple days.  As such, several crews continued monitoring the burn area and surrounding neighborhood for the potential for mudslides and debris flows.  These crews also worked with city officials to ensure that nearby storm drains remained clear. Ventura County fire stations handed out free sandbags to homeowners to protect against potential slides, and the County made sandbags available for pickup by homeowners at a location near the burn area.

 

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

Landslide Concerns in Fire-Ravaged Gatlinburg TN

While the community of Gatlinburg, Tennessee grieves their losses and starts planning how to recover and rebuild, a new threat confronts the area. An inch and a half of winter rain helped put out the horrific fire over the weekend, but as we’ve covered in the past, wildfire-scorched areas often have an increased risk of landslides and mudslides. Local fire crews have thus far reported several small landslides that are slowing their ability to access damaged areas.

wildfire landslides

Before and After Image of a Burn Scar from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire

How a Fire Can Increase Landslide Risk?

Depending on soil type and topography, vegetation and land cover have a significant impact on the stability of the soil. Under normal conditions, leaf litter and other surface vegetation slow the rainfall water moving down a given slope.  This allows much of that moisture to permeate through the soil and drain into the water table or aquifer below, leaving the surface soil relatively stable.  Even during heavy rainfall when surface soil becomes saturated, root systems from brush and trees help to keep the soil from moving downhill.

However, when vegetation is lost due to wildfire (or other reasons such as construction), the factors that keep soil in place are minimized, and there is greater risk that the soil’s surface tension in a given area is overcome by gravity and washes down the slope.

Gatlinburg is in the Great Smoky Mountains, a very old mountain range within the Appalachian Mountain region. Due to the age of the mountains and the region’s climate, the mountains themselves are very weathered, and have much deeper soils than the mountains in the Western United States. The region is also heavily wooded, so the roots of the dense vegetation help to stabilize the nearby soil. When the wildfires recently moved through the area, the vegetation and leaf litter was burned out, and the stabilizing root systems were compromised. Storms then came and assisted in firefighting efforts, but the lack of vegetation due to the recent burns caused a few small slides. Before winter brings snow to the normally wet area, an increased likelihood for flooding, mudslides, and landslides remains a worrying possibility. As of December 7th, there is little rain forecasted in the region for several days.

Visit ready.gov to learn about how to better protect yourself, your family, and your property from landslides and other hazards.