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.

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

GOES-R Environmental Satellite Launched

On November 19, NASA celebrated the successful launch of its latest weather satellite, the revolutionary GOES-R (named GOES-16 once it is operational). This next generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) will deliver better weather forecasting, severe storm tracking, and space weather monitoring for Earth’s entire western hemisphere.

GOES-R Liftoff on November 19, 2016

GOES-R Liftoff on November 19

GOES-R_Spacecraft

GOES Mission Overview

Positioned roughly 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, GOES satellites continuously monitor the Western hemisphere, including the United States, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Central and South America, and Southern Canada. GOES satellites fly in a geostationary orbit, meaning they rotate around the Earth at the same rate as the Earth spins, so their view of the Earth’s surface never changes. The coverage, along with the sensor suite, allows for constant, near real time coverage of Earth’s weather, climate, and large storm events. GOES also has sensors looking toward the sun and space, measuring solar and space weather.

Why the GOES-R Satellite is Significant

The most exciting update to GOES-R in relation to disaster intelligence is the updated Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI). The image above describes the improvements to the new sensor. Below are the benefits related to these improvements.

  • Improved hurricane track and intensity forecasts
  • Improved route planning for aviation
  • More advanced warning for severe storms
  • More advanced warning for air quality warnings and alerts
  • Better fire detection and intensity estimation
  • More and better quality data for long-term climate variability studies

This is only one of several next-generation advanced sensors onboard GOES-R. Other sensors will help researchers study tornado warnings, climate, and space and solar weather. It’s no wonder that people are excited about this momentous launch!

Source(s):

http://www.goes-r.gov/

https://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/content/6-reasons-why-noaa%E2%80%99s-goes-r-satellite-matters

Eastern Appalachian Fires Continue to Threaten

Slow Burning Wildfires Grow Larger

Many of the eastern Appalachian fires we wrote about last week continue to burn. The National Parks Service has imposed an outdoor fire ban as of Thursday, November 17th, and closed just over 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail from North Carolina to Georgia. While areas west of the mountains are receiving rain, none is forecast for the upcoming week in areas where fires are most intense. With winds continuing for the next couple days in excess of 20 mph and warmer-than-normal temperatures, the weather will not be favorable for firefighting crews struggling to increase containment.

Current Appalachian Fires in the Southeast

Appalachian Wildfires

Wildfires in Southeast United States

Updated Fire Outlook

Several fires reported on by RedZone last week have grown significantly as these dry and windy conditions continue to impact the region.

Party Rock Fire

  • Date of origin: November 5, 2016
  • Location: Chimney Rock State Park, Lake Lure, NC
  • Size: 7,171 acres (last week: 977 acres)
  • Containment: 36% (last week: 15%)
  • Fire Behavior: Continues growing to the north
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: WYFF4 News
Appalachian Wildfires - Party Rock Fire Perimeter

Party Rock Fire

Tellico Fire

  • Date of origin: November 3, 2016
  • Location: Almond, NC
  • Size: 13,874 acres (last week: 6,839 acres)
  • Containment: 81% (last week: 18%)
  • Fire Behavior: Minimal smoldering and creeping, nearing containment with a few areas of isolated heat
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: UPI News

Maple Springs Fire

  • Date of origin: November 4, 2016
  • Location: Lake Santeetlah, NC
  • Size: 7,788 acres (last week: 5,083 acres)
  • Containment: 51% (last week: 10%)
  • Fire Behavior: Slow spread through litter and understory
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: Incident Press Release
Appalachian Wildfires - Maple Springs Fire Perimeter

Maple Springs Fire

Boteler Fire

  • Date of origin: November 11, 2016
  • Location: Hayesville, NC
  • Size: 8,967 acres (last week: 4,767 acres)
  • Containment: 70% (last week: 12%)
  • Fire Behavior: Minimal smoldering, backing downslope with up to 2 foot flame lengths
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: Clay County Progress Local Paper
Appalachian Wildfires - Boteler Fire Perimeter

Boteler Fire

Rough Ridge Fire

  • Date of origin: October 16, 2016
  • Location: Cisco, GA
  • Size: 27,004 acres (last week: 10,336 acres)
  • Containment: 40% (last week: 20%)
  • Fire Behavior: Rough terrain continues to impede control and containment efforts.
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: Atlanta NBC11
Appalachian Wildfires - Rough Ridge Fire Perimeter

Rough Ridge Fire

Rock Mountain Fire

  • Date of origin: November 9, 2016
  • Location: Dillard, GA
  • Size: 9,382 acres (last week: 300 acres)
  • Containment: 30% (last week: 2%)
  • Fire Behavior: Anticipated spread in all directions due to elevation and leaf litter, limited spotting.
  • Incident Page: InciWeb
  • News Article: Atlanta NBC11
Appalachian Wildfires - Rock Mountain Fire Perimeter

Rock Mountain Fire

Major Quake Rattles North Canturbury, New Zealand

New Zealand Earthquake Situation

Residents in the North Canterbury region on the South Island of New Zealand were awakened by a major earthquake just after midnight on Monday morning (11/14). The 14-mile-deep quake, which killed two people, triggered a small tsunami, twenty aftershocks, and tens of thousands of landslides across the region. In the two days since, officials have been assessing the situation as the quake and subsequent aftershocks have caused widespread damage to the region. Early cost estimates of the impact are in the hundreds of millions, if not billions.

Following the initial tremor, four aftershocks over 6.0-magnitude (and another sixteen under 6.0) also rattled the area, helping set off thousands of landslides in the steep and coastal terrain.  The coastal town of Kaikoura, north of the epicenter, seems one of the hardest hit with both roads in and out of town cut off by the moving earth.  Heavy rains Tuesday have also complicated rescue and aid efforts.  The situation has prompted a massive evacuation operation by air and sea for the small coastal city’s 2,000 residents. The latest reports state that some locals (and infamous cows) remain stranded with limited supplies. Several New Zealand Navy ships, as well as a US destroyer, are set to help provide needed supplies as well as allow tourists and others to leave Wednesday morning.

Canterbury area, New Zealand Earthquake and aftershocks (Source: USGS Latest Earthquakes)

Canterbury area, New Zealand Earthquake and aftershocks (Source: USGS Latest Earthquakes)


Long Term Impact

Similar to the Christchurch disaster of 2011, New Zealand will undoubtedly feel an economic punch from this week’s events. Countless residents have been displaced and infrastructure and land damages are widespread. At least dozens of homes and businesses in the region have been red- and yellow-taped for structural vulnerability. But, unlike the February 2011 quake, the rural epicenter and comparably miniscule population of the affected areas should ease some of the economic and insurance cost concerns.

The hardest hit areas affected by this week’s disaster total a populous only in the thousands, whereas Christchurch’s population is around 370,000. Economists expect the overall impact on the fast growing economy will be small and nowhere near the 45 billion dollar bill from five years prior. What is certain, however, are negative future impacts on tourism for the beautiful Kaikoura area (see below), which lay in crumbles.

North Canterbury coastal town Kaikoura, NZ hit hardest by Monday’s 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake

North Canterbury’s Kaikoura, NZ hit hardest by Monday’s 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake (source: newzealand.com)


New Zealand Earthquake Statistics

  • Magnitude: 7.9
  • Origin Time: 1103 UTC – Nov 13 2016
  • Epicenter: 42.8 South 173.4 East
  • Depth: 23 km
  • Location: near South Island, New Zealand
  • Impact: Two confirmed deaths, widespread damage and power outages, hundreds evacuated
  • Incident Page: USGS Overview
  • News Article: The Weather Channel

Sources: USGS, CNN, The Weather Channel, stuff.co.nz, Radio New Zealand

A Look Back at 100 Years of the National Parks Service

Over 100 years ago, the National Parks Service did not exist in the U.S. No lands were federally protected, and logging companies were increasing their efforts in response to huge demands for lumber. At last, a few key voices catching the attention of the right people changed it all.

Who will speak for the land that cannot speak for itself?

Individuals such as naturalist John Muir, with the backdrop of such unique surroundings as Yosemite Valley, stepped forward to save the land from the growing number of settlers moving westward. Responding to pleas of Muir and others, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln put Yosemite under the protection of California during the Civil War. Later, in 1872, under President Ulysses S Grant, Yellowstone became the world’s first true National Park, along with several other areas later in the 19th century.

In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning on a whistle-stop tour around the U.S.  He had arranged to explore the Yosemite wilderness with naturalist John Muir–without his Secret Service personnel–while he was in California. Roosevelt wanted to experience the land as authentically as possible. The result of this 4-day visit and Roosevelt’s subsequent presidency, led to the foundation of five national parks as well as several national monuments, national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and national forests. Despite this “national protection” designation, no management or organization was in place to oversee the funding and care of these Parks.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

 

Establishment of the National Parks Service in 1916

In 1915, backed by millionaire industrialist Stephen Mather and National Geographic Society, momentum grew toward establishing a distinct federal organization dedicated to preserving and controlling protected areas.  The National Parks Service was officially created in 1916, and Stephen Mather became its first director. This moved 14 national parks and 21 national monuments under the management of the NPS.

Stephen Mather and his National Parks Service staff in 1927/1928.

Stephen Mather (Front-center) and his National Parks Service staff in 1927/1928.

The Century that Followed

Mather was the first of 18 NPS Directors the institution has had in its history. Throughout the years, many subsequent Acts have been signed to further protect and provide for the federally protected land areas and expand the scope of the National Parks Service. John Jarvis was sworn in as the current National Parks Service Director on October 2, 2009.  He currently oversees more than 400 national parks, monuments, and refuges. The National Parks Service is supported by approximately 22,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal employees and 400,000 volunteers. Last year a record number of visitors experienced the national parks, totaling over 305 million guests to the more than 84 million available acres!

Given the continued increase in the number of total annual visitations, interest in these National Parks among the public is at an all-time high. Recently, MacGillivray Freeman Films released a new film called the National Parks Adventure which is now showing in IMAX theaters across the country. Sponsored by Expedia, Subaru, VisitTheUSA.com, and REI, the viewer gets a rarely-seen insight into several incredible parks.

Due to the bold and ongoing efforts of so many people focused on preservation and conservation, these parks and natural experiences will continue to be shared for many years to come.

Sources:

https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir-influences.htm
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/hisnps/NPSHistory/timeline_annotated.htm
http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/roosevelt.aspx
http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/national-parks/early-history/
https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/faqs.htm