September a Historic Month for Wildfire in California

Containment of three major fires nears after a tumultuous and historic month for wildfires in California.

Incident management teams on all three fires have made great progress of late on containing the Butte, Rough, and Valley Fires. This month the Valley Fire near Clear Lake has destroyed 1,958 structures while the Butte Fire near Jackson has taken out another 818. In terms of structures lost, that makes them number 2 and number 5 respectively since 2003 in California. Only the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County has destroyed more. As the Rough fire continues to gain acreage burned, it has moved up to number 13 all-time in California in terms of acreage burned at 151,493. 

Three large fires nearing containment

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, California’s fires have burned 818,946 acres so far this year. These three are over one-third of that total.

 

As Autumn Looms, So Does the Threat of Santa Ana Winds

Annually, the onset of the fall and winter seasons brings the highest chance for Southern California’s famed Santa Ana winds.

Typically Santa Ana air mass conditions are brought on by high pressure inland and lower pressure off the Pacific Coast which brings very hot and dry weather along with strong, down-slope winds.  In the past, the critical fire weather conditions that accompany Santa Ana winds turn the typically dry chaparral of Southern California into explosive fuel.  Some of the country’s costliest fires in history have taken place in these conditions.

Santa Ana Winds derive from High Pressure in the Great Basin

Interestingly, this year meteorologists are expecting an El Niño cycle to begin affecting the area with rains by November.  In the meantime, as the tropical air mass that has brought this summer’s rain gives way to autumn’s Pacific air mass, a few Santa Ana events should precede the El Nino’s wetting effect.

 

California Wildfires By the Numbers

It’s been a busy year for California wildfires. To date, The Northern and Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Centers have reported a total of 7,541 fires for 783,968 total acres burned. To put it in perspective, that’s larger than the entire state of Rhode Island… burned.

 Let’s have a look at the previous five years as reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC):

Year

Total Fires

Total Acreage

2014

7,865

555,044

2013

9,909

577,675

2012

7,958

869,599

2011

7,989

126,854

2010

6,554

109,529

 

The previous five year average was 8,055 fires for 447,740 acres burned. And while California is a bit under the average this year, it’s only mid-September, and US Forest Service officials are expecting to see fire activity until at least November.

 

Fewer fires but more acreage can only mean one thing, larger fires. This year California has seen six fires over 50,000 acres in size, with four of those still actively burning. Again, let’s have a look at the previous five years as reported by NIFC:

 

Year

Fires > 50k acres

2014

3

2013

1

2012

2

2011

0

2010

0

 

The previous five year average was approximately one large fire per year in California. With so many large fires this season, firefighting resources have been stretched thin. Not to mention that California has sent equipment and manpower to other states that have also been impacted by wildfires this year.

Rain Not Always Welcomed Forecast for Wildfire Scorched Areas

As the Valley Fire in Northern California continues to burn, the forecasted rain can help and hurt.

The Valley Fire north of San Francisco, CA has burned 70,000 acres and is 30% contained. Active fire and visible flames still cover a lot of the area, and the rain expected today will likely help firefighting efforts to cool and douse these parts of the fire. However, for the areas already scorched by this blaze, like Middletown, with burned, unprotected soil, the rain brings further concerns of landslides and flash flooding.

20150915_ValleyFire

 

Many variables lead to increases in risk for an area for landslides and flash floods. One such consideration is recently burned areas that have little to no vegetation to hold the soil in place and minimize erosion. Another notable fire in Northern California is the Butte Fire (71,780 acres, 45% contained) near San Andreas which is also in areas of mountainous terrain. This increased slope is another concern after a wildfire when rain approaches.

Images like the one seen above (taken by a RedZone Liaison on the ground near the Valley Fire today) are becoming common as large wildfires continue to burn across the Western US and Alaska this fire season. Many show no signs of being contained until snowfall.

 

Clear Lake area hit with another major wildfire

The Elk fire is yet another new start in Lake County in 2015. To date, the three major fires shown on the map below alone have burned over 95,000 acres. As of Friday morning the Elk Fire is still only 35% contained.

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Lake County is at it again, with its third major wildfire of the summer. Following in the footsteps of the Rocky and Jerusalem fires from earlier last month the Elk Fire started yesterday and is only 25% contained as of last night. The Clear Lake area has now seen over 95,000 acres burn along with three different evacuation orders – though the Elk fire’s have already been lifted. Wildland fire potential in many areas of the state, including Lake County, is predicted to remain well above normal as Fall approaches.

  

IGNITION FIRE ACRES CONTAINMENT
JUL 29 ROCKY 69,438 AUG 15
AUG 9 JERUSALEM 25,118 AUG 23
SEP 2 ELK 670 35%

  

 

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Firefighter Fatalities on the Twisp River Fire

RedZone extends condolences to the families and friends of the three firefighters that lost their lives battling the Twisp River Fire in Washington yesterday. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all firefighters and those displaced by wildfires nationwide.

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation accepts donations to provide assistance to the families of firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty.

 

Pacific Northwest Not Seeing Break From Fire Weather Events

Yesterday, firefighters had their 3rd straight day of Red Flag Warning conditions over the Cornet Fire (22,792 acres) and the Windy Ridge Fire (22,862 acres) in Oregon. The fires are burning within 4 miles of each other, and a cold front moved over the fire area yesterday. Historically, cold fronts have been responsible for low humidities and erratic winds that can cause extreme fire behavior and rapid fire growth. These conditions, along with poor situational awareness, have caused the loss of numerous firefighters’ lives.

Red Flag Warnings are usually issued to areas expecting low relative humidities and high or erratic winds. These circumstances lead to an increased potential for rapid fire growth; however, large fires can start and grow even when a region is not under a Red Flag Warning. As of today, the only area of the country under this type of Warning is Montana into North Dakota. There are over 50 fires in the country greater than 1,000 acres presently burning outside of this current Warning area.

 

 

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One Wildfire to Bed as Another Awakens

RedZone has been keeping a close eye on Northern California wildfire activity over the past few weeks.  A recent flurry of dry lightning thunderstorms in conjunction with drought and fire prone conditions, have led to numerous large fires across the region.  The Rocky Fire, being the largest of the fires at 69,636 acres, is nearing full containment at 88% as of 0700 hours PDT this morning.  All evacuations in relation to the fire have been lifted, and CAL FIRE’s Incident Information webpage is projecting full containment around August 13th.  In short, it looks like the Rocky Fire is well on its way to bed.

Unfortunately, just as one monster is off to sleep, it seems another has awoken.  The Jerusalem Fire, which started August 9th just south of the Rocky Fire area, quickly grew to approximately 12,000 acres in size with no reported containment as of this morning.  In fact the Rocky and Jerusalem Fire are so close in proximity, only a single valley separates the two fire perimeters from one another.  Mandatory evacuations remain in effect as a result of the Jerusalem Fire, with structures in the area reportedly remaining threatened.  Hopefully the close proximity of resources being diverted from Rocky to Jerusalem will aid in containment efforts.

Although lightning has been the main culprit for numerous fires in the region, the cause of both the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires remain under investigation.

 

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USA Wildfire update – 206 and counting

Alaska remains the unfortunate leader in wildfire, with more than 1.2 million acres involved in 17 major fires. RedZone is currently tracking 30 wildfires in Alaska.

As a comparison, the twenty largest fires in the Continental US combine to measure 382,000 acres – barely a quarter of the size of the Alaskan fires.

Within the CONUS, California has two of the five biggest fires: the Happy Camp Complex fire in Klamath National Forest at 134,000 acres, and the Lake Fire in San Bernardino National Forest at 31,000 acres. RedZone is currently tracking 18 wildfires in California, with varying levels of intensity and threat.

There are other significant fires in Oregon, Washington, and even New Mexico and Nevada. If you want reliable, timely intelligence on wildfire, turn to RedZone. For more information, visit our website at www.redzone.co.

RZAlert_Dashboard_by_RedZone_-_Google_Chrome_7292015_23406_PM

This screen shot from RedZone’s RZAlert dashboard shows the CONUS and wildfires currently tracked by RedZone.