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.


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.


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.


Ten Most Destructive Wildfires of 2016

Wildfire Season in 2016 was below average in terms of acreage with almost 62,000 fire ignitions totaling 5.3million acres (down from a record 10 million acres burned last year). But this year was especially destructive in terms of structure loss. The ten worst fires destroyed over 6,000 structures alone.

Unfortunately, every year a significant amount of such damage is due to human-caused fires which often spread quickly to structures along the wildland urban interface.  This year as many as 1 in 5 fires were intentionally set.  The deadliest fire of 2016, Chimney Tops 2, was started in Tennessee by two teenage boys and was ultimately responsible for 14 fatalities and at least 160 injuries.

Canada also saw its worst disaster on record with May’s Fort McMurray Fire, which cost 3.58 billion (Canadian dollars) and burned 1.46 million acres in Alberta.  The cause of the fire is still unknown, but lightning has been ruled out as the source of ignition, and human activity is strongly suspected.

destructive wildfires

Ten Most Destructive Wildfires of 2016

For further details on the 10 most destructive wildfires of 2016, see the ESRI Story Map embedded below (best viewed in Chrome or Internet Explorer):

Wildfire 101: Dead Fuel Moisture

What is Dead Fuel Moisture?

A recent lack of significant rainfall has kept Southern California in extreme drought, which means there is increased potential for significant wildfire due to dangerous levels of dead fuel moisture. As explained by NOAA, fuel moisture is a measure of the amount of water in a potential fuel, and is expressed as a percentage of the dry weight of that fuel.  So if leaves and downed trees were completely dry in a given area, the fuel moisture level would be 0%.

When fuel moisture content is high, fires do not ignite readily, or at all, because most of the fire’s heat energy is used up trying to evaporate and drive water from the plant in order for it to burn. When the fuel moisture content is low (like in drought-stricken Southern California), fires start more easily and can spread rapidly as all of the heat energy goes directly into the burning flame itself. When drought is extreme and the fuel moisture content is less than 30%, that fuel is considered to be dead, giving us the “dead fuel moisture” designation.

The United States Forest Service which manages a nationwide fuel moisture index, classifies fuel moisture based on two metrics:  fuel size and time lag.

  • Fuel size refers to the actual physical dimensions of the fuel (i.e. the diameter of downed logs or branches).
  • A fuel’s time lag classification is proportional to its diameter and is loosely defined as the time it would take for 2/3 of the dead fuel to respond to atmospheric moisture.  For example, if a fuel had a “1-hour” time lag, one could expect its wildfire susceptibility to change after only 1 hour of humid weather.  Fuels with 100- or 1000-hour time lags would be expected to be much less resistant to humidity.

Fuel moisture is dependent upon both environmental conditions (such as weather, local topography, and length of day) and vegetation characteristics.  The smallest fuels most often take the least time to respond to atmospheric moisture, whereas larger fuels lose or gain moisture slowly over time.

The classifications of the Forest Services’s index (also known as NFDRS) are as follows:

Dead Fuel Moisture

The Dead Fuel Moisture Time Lag Classes as defined by the United States Forest Service

Drought Conditions Improving in California

According to the weather almanac, San Diego–home to RedZone’s intelligence team–had received a minuscule .7 inches of rain since June 1st.  Luckily, a significant rain event entered the southern California region on Thursday evening, adding wetness to the low fuel moisture readings around the region.

Since late Thursday night (12/15), significant rains have finally fallen across the area. The gusty winds and showers are expected to begin tapering off late Friday as the moisture exits to the east, but a long-awaited significant wetting event has been left behind. Early reports on Friday (12/16) have measured up to 3.3 inches in the East County Mountains and greater than 1 inch along the San Diego Coast, far exceeding the cumulative totals since June.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, the drought situation in Northern California had already improved earlier this year, and now the dry weather in Southern California appears to be coming to an end.


Social Media and Wildfire

Good communication is a key in any emergency situation. The ultimate goal is always to protect lives and property. Part of achieving that goal is keeping all audiences informed during an incident. FEMA’s Basic Guidance for Public Information Officers states that “During an incident or planned event, coordinated and timely communication is critical to effectively help the community. Effective and accurate communication can save lives and property, and helps ensure credibility and public trust.” In the Incident Command System, this job lies with the Public Information Officer (PIO). Some of a PIO’s main duties include gathering, verifying, coordinating, and disseminating pertinent information.

Social Media Prevalence

As keen observers in recent years, RedZone has seen the wildfire information delivery portion become more complex than ever before. Our ever-growing age of information, aided by the prevalence of smart phones and social media, has increased interest in unfolding events. Since the Guidance was created in 2007, new tools for connecting with the long list of potentially-interested parties have been utilized. Instead of relying on local and national media, most fire agencies and emergency management departments have taken to the major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to update and inform on their own. CALFIRE and each of their units are some of the leaders in this department, regularly tweeting updates, which is especially helpful for small and medium fires.

A Ventura County Fire PIO updates on the Solimar Fire near Rincon Beach

Live Streaming a Useful Tool

As we heavily rely on timely information from the PIO in much of our daily work, we are excited about an emerging trend from 2016:  The used of live video streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope. Ventura County Fire has used Facebook live (video above) to share information from staging areas as fires unfold. Two of San Bernardino County’s 2016 fires were featured on Periscope as videographer Tod Sudmeier with EPN564 shot continuous live video, showing active flames, aerial operations, and answered questions from the over 150,000 viewers who tuned into the app. During both the Bluecut and the Pilot fires this summer, Tod, a fire and weather photographer gained over 30,000 followers ‘scoping’ the incidents from safe areas in the thick of the action.

Still from EPN564's live stream of the Pilot Fire in August of 2016

Still from EPN564’s live stream of the Pilot Fire in August of 2016

Pilot Fire – – 5,300 viewers

Bluecut Fire – – 179,000 viewers

We expect these live videos to remain really just complimentary to the helicopter footage, press conferences, incident blogs and information pages, and media coverage that we information consumers are used to. But there’s something exciting and fun watching a situation unfold candidly. We’ll be watching for more from EPN564 and other live video streamers next season as we fully expect the trend to continue.


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.

Record Breaking November – Every state reporting above-normal monthly average temperatures.

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.


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

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:


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