Rising temperatures. Deepening drought. Worsening wildfires. Such are the new climate realities for the State of California in a record-hot world.
Yesterday, amid 100-degree heat and blustery winds, and on the back of a devastating drought nearing the close of its fifth year, a dangerous wildfire sparked in the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County. Originating near Interstate 15 at 10:30 AM Tuesday, the blaze fed on the heat, strong winds, and bone-dry brush. In just two hours, the fire had exploded to 1,500 acres in size. Fanning out, it began to threaten homes and buildings within this well-known section of southern California.
(Tuesday feed tracking the early hours of the Blue Cut Fire provided by CBS News on Youtube.)
By early afternoon, emergency officials were scrambling to get ahead of the fire. More than 750 firefighters were mobilized as neighborhood after neighborhood emptied before the gigantic walls of smoke and flame. Sheriffs hurried from door to door, urging people to leave or notify next of kin. Residents spilled onto roadways shrouded by darkness as towering pillars of black burst into the skies above them. Joining together in long trains of cars, they formed a press of 82,000 fleeing the fire. By evening, homes along Highway 138 were engulfed, a local McDonald’s burned, and the famous Summit Inn on historic Route 66 was consumed to its foundations.
As of late Tuesday, the fire had swelled to 15,000 acres; Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Numerous structures including multiple ranches and communities had been surrounded or invaded by fire. Tracey Martinez, Public Information Officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, made this announcement:
“We know that we’ve lost structures, it’s unknown how many at this time. This fire is still raging out of control.”
(Train passes in front of a section of the Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County, California on Tuesday. Image source: CALFIRE.)
Throughout the night, the fire continued to engorge even as more emergency personnel rushed to the scene. Burning embers, lofted on the updraft created by the fire, rained down upon the region. Spot fires ignited as the main body of the blaze expanded. As of early morning on Wednesday the fire had spread to 30,000 acres. At least 1,300 firefighters, 152 engines, 18 fire crews and ten air tankers were involved in fighting the blaze by that time. Despite this enormous effort on the part of emergency personnel, the fire was still zero percent contained.
Extreme Weather Worsens Risk, Produces Multiple Fires
On Wednesday, the weather forecast called for near-100 degree temperatures, very low humidity, and light winds in the San Bernardino area. Such conditions represent continued risk for fire expansion, though lighter winds may provide some slight aid to the hundreds of firefighters now on the ground.
(Predicted west coast temperatures for Friday afternoon show readings in the upper 90s and 100s stretching into northern California, Oregon, and Washington. It’s exactly the kind of heat and dryness that can increase fire danger. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)
This weather pattern is part of a larger heatwave sprawling up and down the U.S. west coast. The heat and dryness have fanned two additional large fires in California over the past few days. In Clayton, a fire scorched 4,000 acres on Tuesday, burning 100 homes. As of Wednesday morning, this fire was listed as only five percent contained. A third fire, the 6,900-acre Chimney fire, is only 25 percent contained after consuming 40 structures.
Over the next few days, this heatwave is expected to expand northward along the U.S. west coast, bringing with it heat and the kind of bone-dry weather conditions that can worsen fire hazards. In Portland, Oregon, for example, temperatures are expected to challenge the 100-degree mark over the coming three days as humidity plummets.
Conditions in Context — Climate Change Increases Temperatures, Worsens Western Drought, Increases Fire Hazard
“It hit hard, it hit fast, it hit with an intensity that we haven’t seen before.” — Mark Hartwig, San Bernardino Fire Chief.
The Blue Cut Fire erupted during a five-year-long drought that is the worst in California history. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 33 million people in California are currently afflicted by drought conditions. This drought has been worsened by a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Under such warming, scientists have long warned, the risk of heat, drought, and fires increases. This stark condition is illustrated by the great unevenness of precipitation falling on the U.S. — in just the past seven days, more rain has fallen over parts of Louisiana than the total of all the precipitation for the past five years in San Bernardino.
Now, with global temperatures hitting near 1.2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages, the pattern of persistent and worsening drought over the U.S. west has become clear. The Blue Cut Fire emerged in this context. And though this region of San Bernardino County has long faced fire risks, the danger, along with the heat, is on the rise.
(UPDATES to follow)
Hat tip to DT Lange
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to Greg