It’s November. A month when the United States should be cooling down toward winter-like conditions. But for the mountainous region along the four-state area bordering Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, the climate are anything but fall-like. There, enormous wildfires are now raging, spilling out massive plumes of choking smoke into the abnormally warm air over lands that have been flash-dried by climate change related heat.
Massive Wildfires Strike Dry Lands
(Very large wildfires burning across the Smokey Mountain region on November 7. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
In the above satellite image, taken by NASA on November 7, 2016, we see multiple fires with fronts ranging from 1 to 5 miles wide erupting over the Smokey Mountain region of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. Some fires appear to straddle the border with Virginia. Large fires also burn further east between Ashville and Charlotte. Together, these fires are emitting smoke plumes that currently stretch upwards of 350 miles — wafted north and west by warm, southerly winds.
Fire warnings and public announcements urging people to not light campfires were given back on November 1. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) provided initial information on multiple fires sparking throughout this four state region on November 4th. MODIS satellite shots for the 4th show that these fires were then much smaller — barely visible in the imagery. Image and ground based reports now indicate that the fires became considerably larger and more threatening over the weekend.
(The view over western North Carolina yesterday afternoon as wildfires burned through the mountainous region.)
By Monday, local news agencies were reporting the outbreak of 170 fires in Georgia alone with 4,000 acres already burned in the northern part of the state. In Tennessee 96 currently active fires are reported to have consumed 9,000 acres. Campbell, in the eastern part of the state, was particularly hard-hit with over 3,400 acres burned as of this afternoon and declining air quality setting off Code Red Alerts. In Kentucky, 11,000 acres had been consumed as of Monday. North Carolina, meanwhile, called up 350 firefighters to fight multiple large and growing blazes.
Flash Drought, Extreme Warmth
Over September and October, the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. has been both extremely warm and extreme dry. Temperatures for the month of October have ranged between 5 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit above average for a majority of the lower 48 states.
(Extreme heat over the southeastern U.S. has helped to promote flash drought conditions together with very large wildfires now burning in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Image source: The U.S. Drought Monitor.)
Together with the heat has come a rapid emergence of drought conditions. In particular, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky have experienced increasingly extreme conditions. In Kentucky, for example, the week ending on November 1st saw the state’s drought coverage more than triple jumping from 24 percent to 81 percent of the state’s land area within just seven days.
Flash drought is a new feature of climate change brought on by increasing rates of evaporation due to warming lands and airs. The extra warmth draws moisture out of soil and vegetation more rapidly and can spark the emergence of extreme conditions on short time-scales. The current flash drought was already causing problems in the Southeast before the recent spate of wildfires. However, given the intense, unseasonal warmth and the speed at which the lands have dried, the present fire outbreak represents a serious and unusual hazard for this time of year.
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to NCFireFighters
Hat tip to Titania