California Wildfires

  • California issues 'first ever' firenado warning as wildfires rage

    The Loyalton Fire currently raging in California, as seen in this one-hour timelapse, produced a fiery vortex on Saturday, leading the National Weather Service to issue its first-ever tornado warning for a twister spawned by fire.

    Apparently running out of cataclysmic events to throw at us this year, Mother Nature decided to reach deep into her bag of tricks and pull out a Biblical classic: swirling hellfire.

    The National Weather Service issued its first-ever tornado warning for a twister spawned by fire early Saturday afternoon after a wildfire in Northern California produced a towering, flaming vortex. While not unheard of, fire tornadoes are some of the rarest weather phenomena on Earth, and meteorologists are saying this is the first time one's received an official tornado warning.

    The NWS Reno office issued a warning for residents in Lassen County, California shortly after 6 p.m. ET on Saturday after a pyrocumulonimbus cloud "capable of producing a fire induced tornado" emerged from a wildfire in nearby Loyalton. Officials also cautioned people to stay clear of the eastern Sierra Valley and issued evacuation orders to several of the surrounding communities.

    Onlookers shared footage of the blazing vortex online, and it is nothing short of terrifying. The images looks like something more at home in a blockbuster disaster flick than a newsreel. In the image of the reported scene on the ground shared below, the towering cloud kicked up by the Loyalton Fire dyes the sunlight orange while obscuring the mountains. The outlines of the firenado rising over the landscape are clear, though, amid the chaos. Other images shared on Twitter appear to confirm the tornado on the ground, swirling and sucking smoke up into the sky.

    The Loyalton Fire, which remains largely uncontained as of Saturday evening, has been burning since Friday and has reportedly grown to more than 2,000 acres. Freakishly hot weather responsible forrolling blackouts across California along with gusty winds and dry conditions have allowed the flames to spread rapidly. These types of conditions are becoming more common due to the climate crisis, leading to larger and more destructive wildfires across the West. Despite that, firenados remain thankfully rare (for now).

    Only a few fiery vortices have ever been recorded, including 2018's Carr Fire. What went on to become one of California's most destructive and largest fires on record also spawned a firenado with winds of 143 mph (230 kph) and killed at least one firefighter. Their rarity has made them somewhat of a mystery.

    Exactly how a fire tornado becomes, well, a firenado is still an area of very active research. What scientists do know, though, is that a key part of the formula to spin up a firenado is that a wildfire has to be monstrous enough to essentially form its own weather system. When that happens, pyrocumulous clouds and pyrocumulonimbus thunderclouds form as the hot air rises above the flames and goes through the cycle of cooling and condensing in the upper atmosphere.

    What happens next, though, is what researchers are still trying to work out. One theory is that if those updrafts of superheated air rise and rotate, you get a spinning whirl of fire and smoke stretching into the sky. Another possibility is that an area of horizontal rotating wind due to the turbulence near the ground gets swept up and tilted vertically. Good on the scientists for working to figure this out, but either way, it's safe to say you don't want to be anywhere near a firenado when it forms.

    The National Weather Service's Reno office later announced on Twitter that the fire tornado had weakened by around 7 p.m. ET, though it warned that "extreme fire behavior" will continue into the evening as gusts are expected to remain in excess of 60 mph (97 kph).

  • California wildfires are creating volcanic pyrocumulus clouds

    The fires in California are burning so hot that they’re making their own pyrocumulus cloud systems, each up to five miles high. These clouds are also making firefighting efforts more difficult. 

    The intense heat induces convection, which causes the air mass to rise to a point of stability, usually in the presence of moisture, causing apocalyptic clouds raising high in the atmosphere. VK

    And more frightening, these clouds look like there was a giant volcanic eruption somewhere in the Golden State – and there are plenty of dangerous volcanoes around: Medicine Lake Volcano, Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic Center, Clear Lake Volcanic Field, Long Valley Volcanic Region, Coso Volcanic Field, Hubehebe Craters, and Salton Buttes.

    California volcanoes map. USGS

    Formation of pyromuculus clouds

    Normal clouds are formed when the sun heats the earth’s surface, causing water to evaporate and rise into the atmosphere, where it cools and condenses into a cloud.

    This is a relatively slow process compared to the formation of a pyrocumulus cloud, where the intense heat of a huge wildfire burns the moisture out of the vegetation. This moisture then accumulates on smoke particles and rapidly condenses as it rises. 

    A large fire cloud may also produce lightning. VK

    Pyrocumulus clouds are more commonly seen above volcanic eruptions, which produce lots of steam. If you’ve ever seen an evil-looking cloud creating dry lightning above a volcano, that’s a pyrocumulus cloud. They’re colored black or dark brown by the volcanic ash, whereas ones created by wildfires are usually dark gray, due to the smoke and ash.

    The speed with which pyrocumulus clouds form and change, combined with the heat of the fire, can lead to quick, massive temperature swings in the atmosphere, producing unpredictable and severe winds.

    A flammagenitus cloud can help or hinder a fire. Sometimes, the moisture from the air condenses in the cloud and then falls as rain, often extinguishing the fire. VK

    These can exacerbate the intensity of wildfires, and cause them to move or otherwise behave in unpredictable ways. And that all can put the lives of firefighters and the public at risk. 

    However, if the fire is large enough, then the cloud may continue to grow, and become a type of cumulonimbus cloud known as a cumulonimbus flammagenitus, which may produce lightning and start another fire. VK

    Sometimes, very rarely, pyromuculus clouds contain enough moisture that they produce heavy rain, potentially helping extinguish the fires that created them. Sadly, that does not appear to be happening this time as California is in the middle of an intense heatwave. 

  • California Wildfires Some of the Largest in History

    Hundreds of wildfires are burning in California, 100,000 people are under evacuation orders, and the governor is calling in help from 10 U.S. states, Canada and Australia to tame the blazes that have scorched an area the size of Rhode Island.

    Some 560 wildfires were burning as of Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said, including two fire complexes that on Saturday grew to be the second and third largest wildfires in California history. The fires have killed at least six people, injured 33 people and firefighters, and destroyed more than 500 homes and other buildings. 

    Many of the blazes were sparked by an unprecedented lightning siege of nearly 12,000 strikes over a three-day period.

    "These lightning strikes came the exact week that we were experiencing some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded in human history – 130-degree temperatures in the southern part of the state of California," Newsom said. "These fires are stretching our resources, stretching our personnel."

    The Bay Area National Weather Service said Saturday that more lightning could be possible again this weekend, through Tuesday, bringing "the potential for new fire starts."

    Map: How many fires are burning in California right now?

    Some 560 wildfires were burning as of Friday, with three major fire complexes – encompassing dozens of fires – carving their way through forest, canyon country and rural areas in northern and central California. 

    A group of fires in Napa Valley, known as the L.N.U. Lightning Complex, was spreading through Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Stanislaus counties. The fire has burned more than 490 square miles and is 15% contained, according to Cal Fire.

    "Every single one of my counties is on fire," California state Rep. Cecilia Aguiar-Curry said Friday. "Listen to what we’re saying. Evacuate. Don’t stick around."

    East of Silicon Valley, the S.C.U. Lightning Complex was burning in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. The fire has burned more than 450 square miles and is 10% contained.

    The L.N.U. and S.C.U. fire complexes grew to be the state's second and third largest wildfires ever on Saturday, trailing behind the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, which burned more than 700 square miles, according to Cal Fire.

    Further west, a third complex – the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties – has burned nearly 100 square miles and is 5% contained.

    "We have wildfires burning... the size of the state of Rhode Island. The size of the state of Rhode Island," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Saturday. "It’s very, very sad... All of us solute our firefighters."

    Hundreds of trees burn at Big Basin Redwoods State Park

    California's oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods, has been damaged by the fires, which have charred hundreds of massive ancient coast redwoods – some more than 1,000 years old.

    The fires have also damaged the park’s headquarters, historic core and campgrounds, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. All campers and staff had been evacuated.

    Dozens of other state parks, beaches and nature reserves have also been closed.

    Yosemite National Park remains open, but multiple park gateway communities are under wildfire evacuation orders.

    How lightning storms started California wildfires

    Many of the fires were caused by a mass of lightning strikes last week – sparks that lit a tinder box of vegetation left dry and crunchy by months of persistent heat and low humidity. Read more about how those conditions evolved here.

    "We’ve definitely had lightning complex fires before," said Rick Carhart, Cal Fire public information officer for Butte County. "The scope of this one, just the fact it's so many fires in such a large area of the state... is an anomaly."

    This particular surge of lightning-caused fires has been one of the most noteworthy in a decade, said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

    Newsom on Friday attributed the phenomenon to climate change.

    "These lightning strikes, this unprecedented heat dome, these world record temperatures, unprecedented in human history – we’re experiencing more and more of that because of climate change, and as a consequence, these fires are more ferocious, and they’re moving at much more rapid speeds," Newsom said.

    The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year, and climate change is considered a key driver of this trend, according to Cal Fire.

    "Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire," the departments says on its website.

    These factors have lengthened the fire season by about 75 days across the Sierras, according to Cal Fire, which predicts that, in Northern California, "above-normal large fire potential" will persist through October. In Southern California, the department predicts there will be an above-normal large fire potential in October and November.

    Wildfires in Colorado, across western states

    Fires were also burning in ColoradoUtah, MontanaOregon, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group on Saturday.

    "The heat dome that we experienced over the course of last week has not only impacted the state of California – it’s impacted the entire western United States," Newsom said. "As a consequence of that, our mutual aid that goes outside the state of California has also been stretched."

    On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis activated the Colorado National Guard to assist the State Emergency Operations Center and incident commanders fighting wildfires. Voluntary evacuations were underway in parts of the state.

    What is the air quality and why don't cloth face masks help?

    Smoke from the fires is making the air quality in parts of California some of the worst in the world. A blanket of smoke – visible from satellite images – is covering parts of California, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed air quality in areas across the state as "very unhealthy."

    And people in the area might not be able to smell the dangerous pollutants in the air.

    Air quality experts measure the amount of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air. According to the EPA, those particles come from a variety of sources, including fires. Smoke from fires can send large amounts of PM 2.5 into the air and over large areas.

    "Whenever things burn there’s a mixture of gases and particles," said University of California, San Francisco pulmonologist Dr. John Balmes, an expert on the respiratory and cardiovascular effects of air pollutants. "When you smell smoke, you are smelling the gases in the air, not PM 2.5... They go hand-in-hand near the fire source, but the particulates travel in the upper atmosphere."

    It’s possible to have bad air — air high in PM 2.5 — without smelling gases.

    Your coronavirus mask may not protect you, unless you have a mask designed to filter PM 2.5, like an N95. Those masks are scarce worldwide because of the pandemic. What residents really need are respirators.

  • California's Wildfire Nightmare

    On August 26, CalFire advised every citizen of the state — all 40 million of them — to be prepared to evacuate. Already, more than 100,000 already have.

    In just five days, more land had burned than in all of 2019. And the number kept growing—well past a million acres to 1.25 million.

    In the Bay Area, the two Lightning Complex fires — in wildfire terminology, “complex” is when multiple blazes join forces — are now the second and third most destructive fires in the state’s history. The Complex could burn as many as a million acres, it’s been suggested — the state’s first “gigafire.”

    The lightning storms that set it off simultaneously ignited so many other wildfires the state authorities couldn’t keep track of all of them, just the 376 most significant ones. All told, more than ten thousand lightning strikes were recorded in a single day; the week saw 560 wildfires start.

    Big Basin Redwoods State Park has been burned through, prompting a conservation group to write, “We are devastated to report that Big Basin, as we have known it, loved it, and cherished it for generations, is gone.

    These trees are between 800 and 1,500 years old. Some of them, older than Muhammad, had stood for a thousand years by the time Europeans first set foot in North America. The youngest of them are older than the Black Death, and precede the invention of the printing press by centuries.

    But the lamentations proved premature; reports immediately after the fire had them “scorched but still standing.” Well, these giant trees are burning from inside!

    California has been on fire before, indeed in the distant past it burned this expansively quite regularly. What is most remarkable about the fires of 2020 is that these complexes are burning without the aid of dramatic wind, which is typically, even more than the tinder of dry scrub and forest, what really fuels California fire.

    Historically, this kind of burning is unimaginable in the absence of the Santa Ana winds. This means, believe it or not, things could be much, much worse. Indeed, the wind is actually calm, by and large, throughout the state, keeping the burning relatively contained but allowing the smoke to settle locally.

    Even so, the smoke covers nearly the entire western United States — choking 11 states and two Canadian provinces.

    And while two active, growing fires are already among the ten biggest ever to hit the state, we are only at just the very beginning of the fall fire season.

    The frequency of extreme fire days has doubled since just the 1980s and is poised to grow even more in the decades ahead.

    This past week, in Death Valley, a global temperature record was set, at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day, the forecast predicted 132. That is the temperature of steak cooked medium rare.

    Fires are among the best and more horrifying natural disasters. They offer up vivid, scarring images it can be impossible not to read as portents of future nightmares even as they document present tragedies and horrors.

    In recent years, they have been a terrifying through-line: 2017’s golfing through the apocalypse, 2018’s Camp Fire evacuation videos, the image of a kangaroo back-lit by roiling orange like a fire diorama.

    This year’s fires in California have already produced such a photo, by Noah Berger, which reminds us that no wildfire, indeed no natural disasters of any kind, unfolds in a vacuum, instead cascading upon communities often numbed to catastrophe even as they are made more and more vulnerable with each successive one.

    Notably, there are no people depicted, only a “Welcome” sign mordantly modified to offer pandemic guidance, in the hope that coordinated human response might protect us from that threat. It is less like a depiction of unfolding terror than a real-time relic from a world already lost.

  • More than 500,000 Oregonians evacuate as 100 major fires devastate nearly 4.4 million acres

    West Coast authorities have reported that at least 23 people have died in wildfires that are raging in California, Oregon and Washington state, as more than 500,000 Oregonians are forced to evacuate due to 100 major fires that have devastated nearly 4.4 million acres across 12 states.

    A Northern California wildfire became the state's deadliest of the year Thursday when authorities announced seven more deaths. Officials said the number may rise as searchers looked for 16 missing people.

    Three other deaths have been confirmed in Oregon and one in Washington state, authorities said.

    Authorities in Oregon said Thursday night that more than 500,000 people statewide were forced to evacuate due to wildfires. The latest figures come from the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. That's over 10 per cent of the state's 4.2 million population.

    More than 1,400 square miles have burned this week in the state. Authorities say the wildfire activity was particularly acute Thursday afternoon in northwestern Oregon as hot, windy conditions continued.

    In California, Butte County sheriff's deputies and detectives found seven bodies on Thursday, a day after three other victims were discovered. Among those unaccounted for are Sandy Butler and her husband, who called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter in a pond.

    'We're still hoping and praying for good news,' said Jessica Fallon, who has two children with the Butler's grandson and considers them her own grandparents. 'Everything is replaceable, but not my grandparents' lives. I'd rather lose everything than those two. They kind of held the family together.'

    More bodies could be found as crews manage to make their way into devastated areas. A team of anthropologists from Chico State University were helping in the search, sheriff's Capt Derek Bell said.

    The weeks-old fire was about 50 per cent contained when winds thrashed it into explosive growth on Tuesday, driving it through rugged Sierra Nevada foothills and destroying much of the town of Berry Creek.

    More than 2,000 homes and other buildings had burned in the lightning-sparked collection of fires now known as the North Complex burning about 125 miles northeast of San Francisco.

    Forecasters said there was some good news on the weather front: winds were expected to remain lighter this week in the fire area, while dense smoke actually knocked down the temperature slightly and was expected to kept the humidity somewhat higher.

    The fire is among five this year that have set records for the most land ever burned, including a blaze that broke the mark Thursday as the largest ever.

    More than 4,800 square miles have burned so far this year - more land than Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington, DC, combined - and fall is typically the worst season for fires. Nineteen people have been killed and nearly 4,000 structures have burned across the state.

    The fires, fed by drought-sapped vegetation amid warming temperatures attributed to climate change, have spread at an alarming rate and given people less time to flee.

    Hundreds of campers, hikers, and people spending Labor Day weekend at mountainside reservoirs and retreats had to be evacuated by military helicopters when they got stranded by a fast-moving fire that broke out in the Sierra National Forest in the center of the state during record-setting high temperatures.

    President Donald Trump spoke with Gov Gavin Newsom on Thursday 'to express his condolences for the loss of life and reiterate the administration's full support to help those on the front lines of the fires,' according to White House spokesman Judd Deere.

    The North Complex fire is the 10th largest in the record books and growing as firefighters try to prevent it from advancing toward the town of Paradise, where the most destructive fire in state history two years ago killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 buildings.

    Authorities lifted an evacuation warning for Paradise on Thursday, the day after residents awoke to similar skies as the 2018 morning when a wind-whipped inferno reduced the town to rubble.

    Under red skies and falling ash Wednesday, many chose to flee again, jamming the main road out of town in another replay of the catastrophe two years ago. About 20,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in three counties from the fire.

    Some 14,000 firefighters continued to try to corral 29 major wildfires from the Oregon border to just north of Mexico, though California was almost entirely free of critical fire weather warnings after days of hot, dry conditions and the threat of strong winds.

    Smoke blew into vineyards in wine country north of San Francisco, and rose above scenic Big Sur on the Central Coast and in the foothills and mountains of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties in the southern part of the state.

    Numerous fires continued to burn in Washington and Oregon, as well, and dense smoke blanketed much of the West Coast on Thursday morning, darkening skies with hazardous air pollution.

    Authorities in Washington state announced the arrest of a second person for intentionally starting a brush fire in Pierce County.

    State troopers said a witness saw the man setting fire to grass with a match near State Route 512 and State Route 7 and called police. After a brief chase, troopers arrested the individual.

    The recent arrest follows that of a 36-year-old Puyallup man who was taken into custody for allegedly starting a large brushfire which temporarily shut down state Route 167 and several ramps near Meridian Avenue.

    In Oregon, a fire raging along the Oregon border destroyed 150 homes near the community of Happy Camp and one person was confirmed dead, the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office said. About 400 more homes were threatened.

    The fire that roared into the hamlet of Berry Creek, with a population of 525, incinerated countless homes and largely destroyed Camp Okizu, a summer getaway for children with cancer.

    A crew fighting the fire was overrun by flames when winds shifted and its members escaped with only minor injuries after deploying emergency shelters. It was the second time in two days that firefighters in California had to take the rare last-ditch effort to save their lives.

    Fallon, who had driven from the San Francisco Bay Area after hearing the Butlers were missing Wednesday morning, waited with her toddler son and 2-year-old daughter with dozens of evacuees gathered at a fairgrounds in the small city of Gridley, trembling in morning cold.

    Among them was Douglas Johnsrude, who packed up his eight dogs and fled his home in the community of Feather Falls on Tuesday.

    Johnsrude said he assumed his house trailer burned, which would be the second time he's lost his home in a fire. He inherited his mother's house after her death, but it was destroyed in a 2017 fire.

    'The reason I haven't rebuilt up there is because I knew it was going to happen again. And guess what? It happened again,' he said. 'Seeing the smoke and the flames and everything else, it's unreal. It's like an apocalypse or something.'

    Butte County spokeswoman Amy Travis described the evacuation center as a staging area while officials line up hotel rooms for families displaced by the fire amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    'COVID has changed the way we do sheltering,' she said. 'We don't have a lot of hotel rooms here in Butte County, and a lot of them are definitely busy with people that have already made their own hotel arrangements for evacuations.'

    Fallon said she'd been peppering hospitals with phone calls in search of her grandparents.

    Her daughter, Ava, doesn't understand what´s going on. She thinks they're camping. The girl typically speaks with her great-grandmother two to three times a day.

    'I´m tossing and turning. I have just such bad anxiety. I´m just really worried about my grandparents,' Fallon said. 'I'm hoping that they're up there sitting in some water waiting to be rescued.'

  • Sky Turns Red as Apocalyptic Fires Engulf West Coast

    An outbreak of wildfires has spread across California, Oregon and Washington and thousands have been ordered to evacuate.

    And the wild-land fires burning in Western Oregon are so apocalyptic that skies are turning blood red and the area is dark from the smoke, in the morning, at noon and during the whole day.

    Oregon fire officials even say they have never seen conditions so conducive to destructive fires, and that it might be days before they can begin trying to suppress the blaze:

    Thousands of Oregonians were evacuated from their homes Tuesday, as conditions led to a spate of surging wildfires state officials said is unprecedented in modern memory.

    “The gusts that began Monday gave new life to fires that had burned in central and eastern Marion County for weeks, eventually creating what officials are calling the Santiam Fire

    “It swept quickly down the canyons west of the cascades on Monday and Tuesday prompting evacuations in a swath of communities east of Salem.

    “Meanwhile intensifying fires east of Eugene, near Ashland and along the coast also demanded attention and prompted evacuation orders in towns and state prisons. The Mt. Hood National Forest has been shut down to the public until further notice.“

  • Wildfire Smoke is Being Sucked into Pacific Jet Stream

    A swath of wildfire smoke is getting pulled into an offshore storm.

    First you had the twice-in-a-century major east wind event in September. That combined for extremely dry air and near hurricane-force wind gusts in spots to create a nearly unprecedented extreme fire danger.

    The “Extreme Fire Danger” forecast given by NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center for NW Oregon was indeed just the second ever given in Oregon’s history.

    Oh, and that east wind dries further when it sinks down mountain slopes, bringing relative humidity ranges into the teens and of course it hadn’t rained much of anything in the past 5 weeks.

    As feared, all the ingredients combined to create massive forest fires that the National Weather Service estimates has so far burned about 10% of the entire forested lands along the western slopes of the Cascades between Eugene and the Columbia River.

    Massive forest fires mean “super massive” amounts of smoke, as the Department of Ecology put it, which turned much of Oregon and northern California into an orange haze worthy of a filming location for Blade Runner with no need for added special effects.

    But as strange as that all was, an even stranger event occurred – the east wind kept blowing, and instead of that smoke getting carried off to the east like in the typical flow of the planet, the smoke was carried west out to sea.

    A loooooooong way out to sea. NOAA has estimated the smoke has traveled from about 1,000 to 1,300 miles off shore.

    This is why the marine breezes that usually clear out the smoke with cool, clean air is instead making the smoke so much worse as that ocean smoke blows our way.

    But farther out to sea, the smoke is getting pulled farther to the east by a wandering low pressure system that is now sucking up the smoke into its center swirl!

    That low is expected to drift toward the Northwest over the weekend arriving around Monday or Tuesday and hopefully bringing some showers. And I’d hope the smoke would dissipate inside the turbulent mixing of the low before it gets here.

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