Extreme Weather Watch: August 2015 – The Western US Burns Up

by on September 8, 2015 · 3 comments

in California, Energy, Environment

Extreme Weather WatchBy John Lawrence

Wildfires swept through the states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and northern California in a record setting conflagration. Thousands of firefighters from all over the world tried to protect houses, but, nevertheless, hundreds burned. A call went out for volunteers and thousands have responded.

Thousands have been evacuated. The cost is soaring past what state and Federal budgets can afford. The choice is to let the West burn up or bankrupt state and national budgets.

The Forest Service is spending $10 million a day to fight wildfires.

In 1995 16% of the Forest Service’s budget went to fight forest fires. Today it’s 52% with 70% predicted in the next decade if present trends continue. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “No one wants our Forest Service to become one large fire department,” but that is exactly what is happening. Vilsack said the federal government has spent more than $1 billion fighting this year’s deadly wildfires

Wildfires across the U.S. have burned a massive 8 million acres so far this year, an area larger than the state of Maryland. It’s the largest total for the same period over the last decade, but more than 5 million of those acres have been in rural Alaska. This year a total of 3,382 fires have burned in Oregon and Washington with 93 categorized as large fires. Four new wildfires sparked to life near the end of August, bringing the total acreage scorched this year in Washington and Oregon alone to just over 1 million acres, according to the national Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

According to the Washington Post, there are only six other years that have seen more than 8 million acres burned — 2012, 2011, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004 — based on National Interagency Fire Center records that date back to 1960. It is hard not to notice that all of these years came since the year 2000. The United States remains at wildfire preparedness level 5 — the highest level — where it has been since Aug. 13.

fireman fireFires weren’t the only the disruption of normal life that was of concern. Almost the entire state of Idaho was under an air quality alert as ash and particles from fires blew downwind, creating health hazards for those outdoors. Large swaths of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and western Montana were under similar warnings. People with asthma and other breathing problems were at high risk.

Air sensors in some portions of central Idaho around the Nez Perce tribal reservation showed the air quality index reaching “hazardous” levels — the highest possible designation — with values higher than 300 on the scale, the worst in the state. That’s the level at which officials urge residents not to do any physical activity outdoors.

A 400 square mile group of wildfires was called the largest in Washington State’s history by officials. This was the Okanogan Complex which killed three firefighters, injured four and burned 200 homes. This fire began with a lightning strike on August 15. More than 1,200 firefighters and support personnel were battling the Okanogan Complex fire. Firefighters battled 17 major blazes burning across more than 400,000 acres in Washington. Residents in the popular recreation centers in Twisp and Winthrop in the scenic Methow River Valley were forced to evacuate.

The Chelan complex fire in Washington state covers about 100,000 acres. To date it is only 65% contained. 21 residences have burned. The cost so far is $13.9 million. There have been 9 injuries. Crews secured the fireline around Hungry Mountain. The fire spotted over the line in a few places on its northwest tip, and crews worked to contain those spot fires.

A hotshot crew assessed the area northwest of Rainy Creek, looking for opportunities to directly suppress the fire. However, the difficult-to-traverse terrain makes the area too dangerous for firefighters. They continue to use aircraft to hold the fire within established lines as they develop a sound strategy for the area. Structure-protection crews continue to defend structures. 9 crews, 48 engines, 6 dozers, 22 water tenders and 4 helicopters battled the fires which continue to burn.

Tens of thousands of firefighters battled to get the upper hand against dozens of large blazes across the West and Northwest. In California, the Summit fire in the San Bernardino Mountains near the resort community of Big Bear Lake burned 100 acres, threatened hundreds of homes and caused most area schools to be closed.

Inciweb, an aggregating website for U.S. wildfires, reported 40 active fires in California alone. The largest to date is the Happy Camp Complex Fire which scorched over 134,000 acres and is currently listed as being 100% contained, but there are scores of other fires in California that are burning 30, 40, and 50 thousand acres at a time. There are 11,000 firefighters on the front lines in California alone. A good portion of the state is currently on fire.

As of August 24 Oregon had 19 ongoing active wildfires. The largest reported is the Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire which had grown to 103,887 acres. This fire began on August 10 with a lightning strike and is currently 80% contained. The immediate danger with all wildfires, even those seemingly contained, is the shift in winds or the change in weather. Bad weather with lightning, little rain, followed by hot, dry conditions contributes to fires that, once considered under control, spark to life again.

fire stormLightning strikes are the most common way that fires begin. This could be the reason why the Northwest and not the Southwest has seen the largest conflagrations this year. In southern California lightning strikes are relatively more rare.The ones not started by lightning are usually started by arsonists.

And as August ended most fires were still only 50% contained. Southern California still hasn’t entered its usual Santa Ana wind driven fire season which usually comes later in the year.

Huge wildfires are being driven by climate change according to recent studies:

The risk of so-called “very large wildfires” could increase as much as six times in the U.S. by mid-century as a result of man-made global warming, researchers concluded in a study announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Very large fires” are defined as the top 10% of fires based on acreage. Such blazes account for the majority of burned acres across the U.S. each year. There are currently 66 large fires burning, a step down from “very large.”

Climate change is expected to both intensify fire-friendly weather conditions – such as heat and drought — and lengthen the season during which these fires tend to spread, according to the study, which was published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Huge sections of the western U.S. would see the risk of very large fires increase by as much as 200% to 500%. The highest risk area includes the Great Basin and Northern Rockies, as well as the Sierra Nevada and Northern California.

Meanwhile in Iran the heat index reached a staggering 162 degrees F forcing Iran to call a public holiday. No one could be expected to work in that heat.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry OB September 20, 2015 at 3:07 pm

I live safely North of the Valley Fire, but it was quite a scare last week. It started in the afternoon, any by that evening three small towns were on fire. It’s been a week now. Containment is a little over 50 percent, and, they say 888 were destroyed so far.

I have to wonder if we can prevent this in the future with controlled burns. We’d also have to reinvent how we build structures, and landscape them. We need to have more mobility. We’ll still need fixed structures. But they might tend to be docking structures for your escape trailer or motor home.


Frank Gormlie September 21, 2015 at 9:34 am

Larry – Good to hear that you’ve escaped the worst fires in Calif history. And it’s always good to hear from you. Now, do you miss So Cal?


Larry OB September 20, 2015 at 3:11 pm

888 structures destroyed.


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