A potential record southwestern heatwave is building — predicted to hit peak intensity by the middle of next week. But, already, higher than normal temperatures and strong southerly winds are lighting off severe wildfires throughout the drought-stricken US West.
Fires Prompt Evacuations, Declarations of Emergency Across US Southwest
In Central New Mexico, a three acre fire exploded to three square miles in size Wednesday — prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency and spurring evacuations in the mountains southeast of Albequeque. Belching out a mountainous plume of smoke, the fire had forced 50 people to flee from their homes by late Wednesday. By 10 AM Thursday, the fire had again ballooned — this time expanding to 19 square miles in an outward rush that consumed an unconfirmed number of structures.
(A crown fire southeast of Albuquerque forces the residents of 50 homes to flee as the governor of New Mexico declared a state of emergency Wednesday. Satellite image source: LANCE MODIS.)
In eastern Arizona, a small town was evacuated and residents of five more were given orders to prepare to leave as the Cedar Creek Fire devoured 4 square miles Wednesday evening. The fire continued to grow throughout the night and by Thursday morning had expanded to cover fully 8.5 square miles. Firefighters are now struggling to contain the blaze but hot weather and 30 mile per hour winds predicted Thursday present serious challenges.
Homes in Utah were also blanketed by smoke and haze as fires threatened. In Iron county, 40 mile per hour winds stoked yet another explosive blaze, cutting off Bumblebee Road and forcing 20 residences to be evacuated. As of last report, the fire was 400 acres in size, but this is likely to be a low estimate as 80 firefighters are now attempting to contain the blaze.
Southwest Drought Fuels Wildfire Near Santa Barbara Oil Refinery
It’s a rash of wildfires fueled by above normal temperatures and an endemic and steadily worsening drying of the region. Ongoing conditions related to human-caused climate change. And California has seen the worst of it. There, extreme drought has now lasted for three years. And in all of the past nine years, California has only seen two non-drought years.
(Dry US West. Dry conditions expanded to cover much of the US West this week ahead of a powerful and potentially record heatwave. Coincident with human-forced warming, an expansion of drought is expected in the US West. A condition that has born out in the form of worsening drying conditions for this region of the US over the past 2-3 decades. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)
In the south, near Santa Barbara, rainfall totals again fell short of average this Winter. Another dry season in a very dry decade that has provided ample bone-dry vegetation as fuel for wildfires.
By late Wednesday, these dry, warm conditions combined with strong sundowner winds to stoke fire dangers near the city. At that time, a 300 acre blaze burning near an oil facility exploded to cover about 2 miles of ground. By early Thursday, the huge blaze was raging out of control along a ridge near an Exxon-Mobile oil processing station.
Hundreds of campers were evacuated from the burning ridge as firefighters rushed in. The oil facility has now been emptied of non-essential personnel and more than 500 firefighters are attempting to erect a defensive line in order to contain the blaze. Currently, there appears to be no severe threat the fire will ignite fuels within the Exxon facility. But 40 mile per hour winds are predicted for later today and the nearby fire could be poised for more explosive growth.
(Fire rages near Exxon Mobile oil processing facility in Santa Barbara, California on Wednesday. Firefighters had a brief respite as winds died down Thursday morning. However, fire conditions are expected to rapidly worsen by Thursday afternoon with the return of strong sundowner winds. Image source: Pete Demetriou.)
Dangerous Infrastructure — Oil Facilities Vulnerable to the Fires of Climate Change
This is the second time that a large oil facility has been threatened this year by a wildfire. In Canada, the Fort McMurray Fire forced the evacuation and shut down of large tar sands production facilities as barracks for oil workers succumbed to that massive blaze.
Human caused climate change is increasing instances of wildfires around the world through the combined forces of increased drought, rising temperatures, and more intense rates of evaporation. And in what could well be called an ironic twist of fate, the very fossil fuel infrastructure that is causing the warming is also quite vulnerable to the fires it has helped to light off.
If we were to use a metaphor, we could compare it to playing with fireworks on a 100+ degree (F) Fourth of July day in a big puddle of gasoline. In other words, this is the very definition of irresponsible. And the potential for tragedy here is enormous. Fossil fuel facilities contain massive amounts of volatile explosive compounds. Explosions at refineries due to accidents are among the most powerful manmade (if unintended) violent outbursts on Earth. And the very use and production of that fuel makes it more and more likely that a wildfire will set off a very real manmade firestorm at one of these many massive facilities.
(US fire danger map shows high to extreme potentials for wildfires across large sections of the country. Fire risk is likely to intensify over the coming week as a record heatwave is predicted to build across the country. Today’s outbreak, therefore, may just be the start. Image source: US Fire Service.)
It’s just one more example of how dangerous and irresponsible the global fossil fuel industry has become. And in this instance they are increasing risks to life and property not just to those who live anywhere near an oil or gas facility — but for anyone living pretty much anywhere at all. In other words, the fires are getting worse because we are burning fossil fuels. And the very fossil fuel facilities that are causing this problem are threatened.
Hat Tip to DT Lange