Climate Change, Drought Fan Massive Sand Fire, Forcing 20,000 Californians to Flee

On Friday, amidst temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and at a time when California is now entering its fifth year of drought in a decade when seven out of the last ten years have been drought years, a rapidly growing and dangerous wildfire erupted in the hills north of Los Angeles.

(Sand Fire looms over Santa Clarita, California. Video source: Sand Fire Time Lapse.)

The Sand Fire, which some firefighters are calling practically unprecedented, sparked before typical wildfire season peak and began a rapid spread that consumed 10,000 acres per day from Friday through early Monday. Nearly 3,000 firefighters scrambled to gain a foothold against the blaze, but were somewhat unprepared as contracted water-bomb aircraft from Canada won’t be available until next month, during what is usually the worst part of fire season. The aircraft assistance was planned as extra fire-suppression capability for Santa Clarita, but typical fire threat and risk assessments no longer hold much water in an era where human-forced climate change is pushing temperatures and drought conditions to new extremes across California.

By Monday, the fire had exploded to 33,000 acres (51 square miles). In total, 18 buildings are now reported to have burned and more than 10,000 others have been evacuated. A population the size of a small city, 20,000 people, have now been displaced by this rapidly expanding wildfire. Due to heroic efforts by firefighters, an estimated 2,000 homes have been saved so far. Sadly, the fire has also now claimed a life.

California Wildfires July 24

(Smoke plumes from large wildfires burning over southern and western California, framed by a warming Pacific Ocean, a drying Central Valley, and what appear to be snow-free and bone-dry Sierra Nevada Mountains in this July 24 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Continued hot temperatures and 30-mile-per-hour winds are expected to continue to fan the fire today, which as of this writing is just 10 percent contained. If the worst case is realized and this fire continues to expand out of control, as many as 45,000 homes may ultimately be forced to evacuate. Such an evacuation would be comparable in scale to the Fort McMurray Fire which raged through Alberta during May and forced more than 90,000 people to flee.

Conditions in Context — Living in a Fire Age

There is widespread geological evidence of voracious fires burning through large regions of the globe during past hothouse warming events. At the Paleocene-Eocene boundary 56 million years ago, a warming rate that was about ten times slower than what we are experiencing now set off immense blazes that ripped through the world’s peatlands and forests. In other words, evidence points to past instances of Earth warming into hothouse conditions generating periods of intense fires that may well be called fire ages. Today, the Earth is about 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than during the late 19th century. This high temperature departure combines with a very rapid rate of continued warming to dramatically increase wildfire risks around the globe.

Drought Climate Change

(Conditions related to climate change continue to increase drought frequency across the U.S. West. For the past five years, California has seen the brunt of this predicted increasing drought trend as a result of human-forced warming. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)

More local to the Sand Fire, California is in a zone that global climate models have long predicted would suffer from severe heat and drought as a result of fossil-fuel burning and related human-forced warming. This year’s persistent above-average temperatures on the back of five years of drought have greatly increased wildfire risk for the state. Millions of trees now stand dead, surrounded by withered vegetation in a heating and drying land — a vast range of additional fuel that is ever more vulnerable to ignition.

Not only do these conditions generate a higher risk of extreme fires during fire season — sparking blazes like June’s Erskine Fire which burned 200 homes and was the most destructive fire in this California county’s history — but they also increasingly spark large wildfires out of season. It’s a set of conditions that basically generates a year-round fire season for the state, even as it also sparks winter wildfires at far-flung locations around the world.

Links/Attribution/Statements

10,000 Homes Evacuated Due to Wildfire

Sand Fire Map

Sand Fire Time Lapse

Omens of a Fiery Future

US Drought Monitor

29 Million Trees Died in California this Year

Climate Models Predict US Megadrought

Hat tip to DT Lange

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Alaska’s Epic 2015 Burning is One Month Ahead of Previous Worst Year; Canada Conflagration Continues, Eastern Siberia Wildfires Light Off

From Canada to Alaska to Siberia, an immense half-crescent of the Arctic is on fire. The hot spots along this zone include freakish fires with 50 mile fronts, fires that generate thunderstorms from the heat of their updrafts, and fires that paint smokescapes over the lake waters of Canada even as they light the sky red:

(Freakish lake fire burns in Saskatchewan, Canada on Monday, July 13. It’s just one of thousands of fires now raging through Arctic lands and 5,105 fires burning through Canada alone.)

Fires, overall, that have been vastly under-reported in the mainstream media. And, even when they are reported, they include often inaccurate qualifiers.

So what the heck is really going on? The human hothouse is generating an ever-greater burning potential throughout the Arctic. One that has erupted toward new levels of intensity this year. One that is plainly and painfully visible to any who care to look.

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In Alaska, a massive area the size of one and one half Connecticuts (7,300 square miles) has already been consumed by fires. A zone of smoldering tundra, boreal forests turned to ash, smoking bogs, and smoldering, thawing permafrost.

But aside from a handful of responsible sources (see also here), the mainstream media just can’t get what is now likely to be the worst fire season ever to strike Alaska right. So let’s take a few moments to set the record straight on what is an unprecedented burning of Alaska’s warming tundra, forests and permafrost. A burning that is related to human greenhouse gas emissions-based heating of the atmosphere in that the thawing permafrost provides additional understory and methane fuels to fires even as it multiplies the number of fire-igniting lightning strikes.

A Failure to Accurately Report on an Ongoing Disaster Directly Linked to Humanity’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

At first, a sudden, abnormal outbreak of hundreds of wildfires throughout the Arctic state during June was framed ‘not abnormal.’ That is until June shattered all previous records for worst wildfires ever and put all notions that anything normal was going on soundly to bed.

Next, the narrative ran on the false meme that most of the fires were caused by human hands (of the match tossing variety). Any journalist worth their salt, however, could simply check that pseudo factoid against the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center report to find that 377 fires were lightning-caused (well more than half) and that these lightning-caused fires, as of Tuesday, amounted to a whopping 4,675,000 acres burned. The human match, lighter, and campfire ignited fires? A piddly 30,000 acres. In other words, more than 99 percent of all the area burned was due to a warming-intensified proliferation of thunderstorm activity and related lightning strikes.

Alaska Pyrocumulous Clouds

(Pyrocumulus clouds have been popping up like hothouse amplifying daisies all over Alaska since mid June. This ridge fire appears to be in the process of building its own thunderstorm. Image source: ADN.)

Indirectly, we could certainly call this extra lightning human-caused — as the vehicle of greenhouse gas warming has resulted in a marked increase in lightning strikes to the thawing permafrost and heating forest and tundra fuels. But this particular human cause is certainly not of the typical match-throwing, arsonist variety. It’s another story entirely. A much more important story that far too many sources appear to be (unintentionally or deliberately) missing. A story of the plainly visible and worsening impacts of human-forced climate change.

To use any set of language other than to characterize the Alaska burning as unprecedented, freakish, record, and abnormal is vastly irresponsible. Any attempt to attribute the 4,675,000 acres ignited by warming induced lightning strikes to ‘arson’ is equally myopic and misleading. If you’re reading a source that makes these claims, that source is an invalid and untrustworthy reporting medium. One that can’t keep a handle on even the most basic of facts.

Alaska Burning is One Month Ahead of the Worst Fire Year Ever

And when all the dust of this mass misinformation over a critical issue directly related to human-caused climate change settles, we find that Alaska’s fires are now burning at a rate fully one month ahead of the previous all time record fire year of 2004. Tuesday’s total acres burned of 4,705,000 stood but 1,900,000 acres shy of that record. And at the current rate of burning, that total could be consumed within a mere 7-15 days — putting the current Alaska wildfire season, by late July or early August, at new record thresholds with more than a month left for forests, tundra and permafrost to continue to burn.

Alaska Wildfires July 14

(Hundreds mile long smoke plumes issuing from Wildfires in Alaska on July 14. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

In the July 14 MODIS satellite shot we can clearly see massive smoke plumes billowing up from the still energetically burning fires in Central Alaska. Lightning laden cumulonimbus clouds ride overhead — a pattern refreshed by a continuous influx of warm storm moisture rising up over the Gulf of Alaska and deflected off the ridiculously resilient ridge (RRR) to the south. The storms are still setting off around 3-7 fires each day. A rate of new ignition that, though slower than June, is pushing total number of Alaska fires toward the unprecedented 700 line.

7.5 Million Acres Burn in Canada

Across the border in Canada a whopping 5,105 fires are now also consuming vast stretches of Arctic land. It’s an outbreak that resulted in the largest natural disaster evacuation in the history of Saskatchewan. One that has drawn firefighters from all over the world to combat an immense proliferation of blazes. Blazes that have burned about 7.45 million acres so far or an area about the size of 2.3 Connecticuts.

When combined with the Alaska fires, the total area now burned in Arctic sections of North America now equals about 12.1 million acres or more than 1 million acres burned since this time last week. Rates of burning for Canada are, like Alaska, in many cases unprecedented. Total acres burned for the Arctic nation are now at two times the five year average and three times the 25 year average. Specific regions, like British Columbia, are seeing as much as 10 to 20 times the typical area burned by mid July.

Vast Wildfire Eruption in Eastern Siberia

Moving on across the rapidly thinning ice of the Beaufort, Chukchi and East Siberian seas, we find that Eastern Siberia is also experiencing a massive wildfire outbreak. Reports from Russia on acres burned have tended to be spotty. But this zone near Lake Baikal has seen a persistent and then an expanding propagation of burn zones toward the north and east since April.

Vast burning in Eastern Siberia

(Vast swath burns through Eastern Siberia on Wednesday. Image source: LANCE-MODIS).

Today, the fire outbreak there could best be described as vast. Stretching from Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk, the fire zone now encompasses a region more than 1,000 miles across. Scores of large fires can be seen burning beneath a massive cloud of smoke that streams all the way down through China, combining with the nasty coal dust cloud stooping over that fossil fuel victimized state.

One cluster of these fires, visible in the upper left of the image frame above and zoomed in below features fires with fronts in excess of 50 miles long. These are truly immense fires. Individual blazes large enough to consume small states burning through the carbon rich boreal forests and permafrost zones:

Massive Siberian Wildfires

(Immense fires with fronts as long as 50 miles from end to end ballooned in Siberia today. Image source: LANCE-MODIS).

For reference, the above image’s lower frame edge covers more than 250 miles. This gives us a sense of the utterly huge fires burning away from lower right to center frame.

Conditions in Context — Human-Caused Warming Vastly Increases Arctic Wildfire Potential, Wildfires Make Climate Change Worse

The massive outbreaks of fires in Canada, Alaska and Eastern Siberia during 2015 are not occurring in a vacuum. They are not isolated disasters to simply report, confuse, forget, and then report again when the new record fires erupt in 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019. They are instead symptoms of a larger trend of polar amplification in the Arctic.

The more than 1,400 billion tons of carbon in the permafrost is now being set to rapidly thaw. The permafrost, when unlocked from its primordial, thousands to millions year old, ice traps yields this carbon in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. The solid peats, the liquid organic carbons, and the methane seeps all provide new and highly volatile fuels for wildfires.

In addition, boreal forests are not fire resilient like their more southerly cousins. The trees there do not typically face flame or intense ignition sources. So when an atmosphere heated by human fossil fuel burning produces powerful, lightning flinging thunderstorms in the Arctic for the first time in thousands to millions of years, the trees there have no natural defense against the fires that inevitably ignite. Individual trees may as well be standing sticks of dynamite in the face of this warmth-driven barrage.

Other factors include tree killing pest invasions, the thin mat of flammable material that underlies most Arctic forests, and the drying tendency of the added heat itself.

So much forest, tundra soil and permafrost burning in the Arctic can eventually have its own sort of warming-amplifying effect. For the fires, fires that are likely not even natural to the slower periods of warming faced by Earth during past hothouse events, rapidly unlock the carbon stored in the forests as well as the rapidly thawing permafrost beneath. This release adds to the already extremely intense carbon emission from human beings and further heightens the danger of hitting climate points of no return.

This is the signal the media has lost in all its talk of ‘not abnormal’ and ‘arson.’ A warning cry from the Arctic. And one we had better not ignore.

Links:

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

LANCE-MODIS

Alaska Wildfire Photos

Montreal Lake Wildfire at 250,000 Acres

Scary Statistics For Alaska Wildfire Season

Wildfires Set off Largest Evacuation in Saskatchewan History

How Climate Change Makes Wildfires Worse and How Wildfires Return the Favor

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Alexander AC

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Arctic Wildfires In Winter: Norway Experiences Freakish Historic Wildfires In January

Flatanger Fire

(Flatanger Fire during the long winter night in Norway. Image source: NRK)

Major wildfires in California in winter are bad enough… Unfortunately, now we must include the Arctic to the anomalous tally. For since December, three major wildfires have erupted in Arctic Norway, with two of these extraordinary fires blazing through coastal Nordic settlements just this week.

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On Monday, a major wildfire erupted along the western coast of Norway near the city of Flatanger. The fire, fanned by winds ranging from 30-50 miles per hour and by a drought in which almost no precipitation has fallen since Christmas spread rapidly, rushing over the mountainous terrain to put both life and livelihood at risk.

As of Wednesday, the fire had exploded to the largest wildfire recorded in Norway since World War II. It had also consumed 139 homes as it raced down the rocky mountain sides of western Norway.

By late Wednesday, as firefighers struggled to bring the Flatanger fire under control, a second massive fire erupted on the island of Froya about 80 miles to the south and west. The fire exploded with such ferocity that 430 residents were forced to evacuate as flames and smoke rushed down along the hillsides. As of Thursday, the Froya fire still burned out of control, threatening to spur evacuations from other settlements in the path of the blaze.

Froya wildfire

(Aerial Photo of the Froya Wildfire. Image source: News in English)

The Flatanger and Froya fires mirrored another large blaze that erupted in Norway during early December, consuming 40 homes near the town of Laerdal. The Laerdal fire coincided with a period of excessive warmth and drought, with December marking one of Norway’s warmest winter months ever and Oslo experiencing its hottest Christmas since record keeping began in 1937.

Needless to say, it is not at all normal for Norway to experience wildfires of record intensity during winter time. A clear sign that climate change together with a mangled jet stream and extreme polar amplification are well in play to create dangerous and freakish conditions.

“Just a month ago, no one would have said there was a threat of brushfires in Trøndelag at this time of year,” noted Dagfinn Kalheim, director of the Norwegian fire prevention association. Now, they’ve experienced three of their worst fires on record during winter. Unfortunately, in the context of a warming globe and related human-caused changes to the atmosphere, land and sea, locations around the world and especially around the Arctic Circle are under the gun to experience ever-worsening fires.

Drought, Fuel, Wind, Ignition

Western Norway has been in the midst of an ongoing drought since late fall. The drought, spurred by a ridge in the polar Jet Stream has steered storms away from the usually wet Norway and slammed them over and over into the British Isles, France and Spain. The drought left mountain scrub and thawing tundra in the region very dry and vulnerable to fire. This anomalous period also included one of the hottest Decembers in Norway’s reckoning.

In recent years we have seen increased fire vulnerability in far northern regions due to thawing tundra, increasing periods of heat and drought, and, possibly, maritime emissions of flammable gasses. The tundra is full of organic material and, in certain regions, emits methane in high enough concentrations to burn. The Arctic seas have also been emitting high volumes of methane and related flammable gasses, but it has not been determined that these emissions come in high enough concentration to add a potential secondary ignition source. Though a cause has not yet been determined for the historical Flatanger fire, it is likely that a combination of drought, related dry scrub and the yearly advance of thawing tundra in the region contributed to the intensity of the blaze.

Strong winds over the drought-stricken coastal region enabled the fire, which would generally be suppressed by temperatures near freezing, to rapidly spread through the tinder-dry underbrush and sporadic regions of thawed tundra. Fire fighters have been unable to locate an ignition source at this time.

You can watch a video of this anomalous blaze racing down the Flatanger mountainsides here:

(Video source: Se Flammen Fra Luften)

Climate Change Context

Climate change drives both increasing heat, extended periods of drought in previously damp regions, and changes to the environment, especially in the Arctic, that provides more fuel for wildfires. In addition, more numerous Arctic thunderstorms provide an expanding ignition source for these blazes while the Arctic Ocean and adjacent tundra now emit prodigious volumes of methane.

It is also worth noting that both the World Meteorological Organization and UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres have both established an ‘absolute’ link between human caused warming and increasing numbers of wildfires. And the fact that we are seeing the eruptions of major wildfires throughout the Northern Hemisphere during winter, a time when wildfires hardly ever occur, is yet more evidence that the situation is growing ever more extreme.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Norway shows continued dry conditions for at least the next two weeks. In addition, a period of warming is expected to bring temperatures 7 degrees (Celsius) or more above seasonal averages over the coming days. With higher temperatures and dry, southerly winds continuing to blow, Norway remains under the gun for extreme winter wildfires.

Links:

Most Extensive Wildfire Since World War II

Fire Sweeps Across Peninsula in Northern Norway

Climate Change is Absolutely Linked to Wildfires

News in English

Northern Europe Experiencing one of its Mildest Decembers on Record

NRK

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California

Hat tip to SeeMoreRocks

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