November 16, 2018

Devastating Fires Continue to Burn as California's Rainless Rainy Season Continues

California's worst wildfire in recorded history continues to burn this evening as rescue crews comb through the ashes of an entire town to recover the remains of those who couldn't escape in time. The billowing smoke from the latest round of historic wildfires has grown so thick at times over the past week that much of the region appeared shrouded by a toxic supercell on satellite imagery. This scene has repeated itself too many times in recent years, and there's no indication that it'll let up in the future.

There are currently about a dozen fires burning out of control across California's vast countryside. Five of the fires are significant and one of them is unprecedented. The Camp Fire, located just east of the northern California city of Chico, is now both the deadliest and the most destructive wildfire ever recorded in California, and will likely end up as one of the worst in modern U.S. history.
Source: Cal Fire

The Camp Fire destroyed almost every building the town of Paradise, California. Many of the 10,000 residential and commercial buildings that have burned down so far were destroyed not long after the fire started early in the morning on November 8. The latest update from local officials reported that there were more than 600 people either missing or unaccounted for. It's possible that a significant number of them may have been caught in the fire. But it's also possible that many of them just haven't been contacted since they fled with what little they could last week.

Crews have worked at a feverish pace to knock down the flames, but adverse weather conditions and ample dry fuel has made stopping the fire a significant challenge.The fire has consumed more than 141,000 acres of land in the past week—placing the fire among the top-20 larges ton record, in addition to all the other tragic records—and it's just 40% contained as of November 15.

Hundreds of miles away in southern California, another fire sparked around the same time as the Camp Fire up north. Called the Woolsey Fire, this fast-spreading conflagration prompted the evacuation of the entire city of Malibu, which is best known around the world as the home to multi-million dollar celebrity homes.

Around 500 homes and businesses have been destroyed in the week since the fast-spreading Woolsey Fire sparked on November 8, killing two people and consuming nearly 100,000 acres of land. Crews have had better luck getting this fire under control; by the evening of November 15, the fire was 62% contained.

The story behind these fires is the story behind just about every other significant fire we've seen in recent years. Exceptionally dry vegetation caused by too little rain allows even the tiniest spark to grow into a fire that spirals out of control faster than many can react.

It's undeniable that the fires in California—really the entire western half of North America—are getting worse.

The state's largest-ever fire burned just this past summer. The Mendocino Complex charred more than 450,000 acres of land. If you have no frame of reference for how much land that is—I sure don't—it's an area roughly the size of the Hawaiian island of Maui, or about the same amount of land covered by the suburban D.C. counties of Prince William and Fairfax combined.

In fact, 15 of the 20 largest fires ever recorded in California have occurred since 2000, and 7 of those fires burned between 2010 and 2018.

There isn't one specific factor we can point to as the cause behind these horrendous wildfires. It's a combination of several hazards. The fires are largely caused by humans. The fires grow enormous thanks in large part due to conditions brought about by a changing climate. And the fires are so destructive because we're building entire communities on land that was previously undeveloped woodland not long ago.

The conditions that allow for California's wildfires to grow bigger than ever before—including lengthier and more frequent droughts and hotter temperatures—are all likely consequences of climate change that we're already dealing with. And things aren't going to get any better unless current global temperature trends start to reverse.

California's rainy season is usually ramping up by the middle of November, but you wouldn't know it by looking at conditions across the state right now.
Source: xmACIS2

The above rainfall graph is taken from Oroville Municipal Airport, which is located just a couple of miles south of Chico and the raging Camp Fire. The graph, which begins on July 1, shows the progression of the rainy season through the fall and winter months. The flat green line at the bottom of the chart shows the almost-imperceptible amount of rain that's fallen across north-central California since the middle of this summer. They've seen virtually no precipitation even though they should have nearly five inches of rain on the books already.

And so the story goes for much of the western United States. The land will continue to be ripe for explosive fire development when weather conditions allow for it as long as there's no rain to quench the parched vegetation that blankets the region. Fires spread most efficiently when the ground is parched from a lack of rain, the air is extremely dry with relative humidity levels in the single digits, and strong winds that help spread the flames faster than they can be contained. This is why the Santa Ana winds of southern California are so spectacularly dangerous, as we saw with the incredible speed at which Malibu's Woolsey Fire spread.

The Storm Prediction Center, which also issues fire weather outlooks, shows no areas at risk for critical or extremely critical fire weather conditions over the next couple of days. The agency shows the risk for elevated fire weather conditions across higher elevations near the coast in southern California through the evening on Thursday, but no other areas with weather conditions favorable for explosive fire growth. These improved weather conditions should help firefighters—thousands of whom are prison inmates who work long hours for just a few dollars a day and no chance of getting a firefighting job after they're released, might I add—get a handle on the fires that are already burning.

Rain-free conditions will prevail for the next week or so across California, though there is some hint in the models that there could be chances for rain around or after Thanksgiving, but it's a long way off and sadly it's way too early for specifics.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.