California erupted in flames overnight. Here’s why.


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Newly-born fires torched bone-dry Northern and Southern California throughout the night of November 8. One deadly blaze in particular, the Camp Fire, ripped through 70,000 acres in just 24 hours. 

“It’s incredible,” Michael Gollner, a fire scientist at the University of Maryland, said of the uncontrollable Northern California wildfire. “I don’t know if I want to say unprecedented — but it’s getting close to that. It’s incredibly rare.” 

“That blows your mind,” Brenda Belongie, lead meteorologist of the U.S. Forest Service’s Predictive Services in Northern California, said in an interview.That impresses us in the industry.” 

While the Camp Fire nearly burned the entire town of Paradise to the ground, residents in heavily-populated Southern California documented their nighttime escapes from falling embers and glowing hillsides. 

The Woolsey and Hill fires have now burned through 14,000 acres, with thousands of residents receiving urgent nighttime evacuation messages via text.

In both the north and south of the parched Golden State, the rapidly-evolving circumstances are similar: profoundly dried-out land with the arrival of persistently dry, gusty winds.

“Then all you need is a spark,” said Belongie. 

Clouds of smoke seen from Hermosa Beach, California.

Although fires are complex environmental phenomena driven (and exacerbated) by weather, U.S. fires in the last couple decades have been burning at least twice as much land than in the early 1980s, and they’ve been burning for weeks — not days — longer. A warmer climate means more dry, flame-susceptible vegetation.

“These fires are going to be happening more often,” noted Gollner.

“That blows your mind”

The California fire season should be nearing its end. Typically, by mid-October the season dies down as the first rains will make the grasses and forests less likely to burn — particularly in Northern California.

But not this year.

“We are still very much in fire season,” said Belongie. “It’s just one fire after another.”

The Camp Fire, barely contained as of Friday morning, is the continuation of a historic fire season in the heavily-forested northern part of the state. In July, the Carr Fire — after jumping the Sacramento River — grew into a towering, spinning vortex of flame

Northern California has now seen a record number of acres burned during a fire season, Belongie said. That’s around 150 percent of the previous record, she noted. 

The now-raging Camp Fire has exploited exceptionally dried-out forests and grasses. In some portions of Northern California, forests are now as dry as they were during the peak summer fire season, when temperatures were in the triple digits.

It’s now well into November, and parched forests are at their seasonal records for dryness, with some setting new records.

“This is a huge deal,” said Belongie.  

For a few weeks now, California forests have been increasingly dried-out by strong, dry winds, blowing from the north and east — so fire experts expected flames. And through the night, east-blowing winds blew persistent gusts through much of the state. 

The dry stage was set. 

“Unfortunately, it’s not unexpected,” said Gollner.

And Westerners can expect similar circumstances in the future. Once these large fires start, there’s little that can be done to stop them — even our massive fire-retardant dropping aircraft have little effect.

“The airplanes aren’t going to do very much once the fire grows to this enormous size,” said Gollner.

With this modern reality, society needs to prepare, emphasized Gollner. 

For instance, it’s now imperative that flame-vulnerable communities reduce vegetation near their homes, so communities aren’t met with 100-foot tall walls of flame.

We can’t stop the flames — but we can make them manageable. 

“It’s not about making it a black-top all around,” said Gollner. “It’s about reducing the fuel over the land — so we don’t have this really high risk next to our homes.”

But for now, fire managers just want this particular season to just end. 

“This is an endless fire season,” said Belongie.

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