Northern California has been lit up in fire’s red glow since a small brush fire started Nov 8, near Camp Creek Rd in Butte County, CA. Twelve days later, this fire has erupted into the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire to date. Close to 80 people have been confirmed dead, and 700 still remain missing. The worst part? It’s not over.
Fall on the west coast is known for the dangerous fire-weather conditions it brings: low humidity, high temperatures, and gusty winds. For the last two weeks, high pressure has remained almost stationary over the west coast. Clockwise flow around this high pressure has pushed hot, dry air over mountains, only for it to shoot out over the coast. Santa Ana and Diablo winds are names given for some of these super dry winds that commonly blow over the Californian coast this time of year. These winds become excessively hot and dry as they flow down the west side of mountains, sometimes at 40 mph.
During the Fall, vegetation and soil are driest, especially with much of CA remaining in drought conditions for most of the summer. In these conditions, even the smallest spark can ignite a fire. Small brush fires are easy exacerbated and spread by dry winds. This is how the Camp Fire has been able to persist and spread so much over the last 12 days.
— WISN 12 NEWS (@WISN12News) November 20, 2018
As of early Monday morning, 65% of the fire was contained, but that still leaves hundreds of acres burning. Stagnant, ash-filled air has plagued parts of CA that have not even seen the fires, or that have been put out. Air quality alerts have been placed over the area for the last week, and will hopefully improve with possible precipitation later this week. Ash and smoke from the fires have been so excessive, that last night, the NYC sunset was different. Flow across the country had brought smoke particles all the way to the East coast, and we can see that on the Airmass product of the GOES-16 below. On this product, it shows up as a darker red/orange stream, flowing from Northern CA, all the way to NY.
What’s next for CA? Officials from the CA forestry and fire protection agency, Cal Fire, say that the fires won’t be fully contained until November 30th. Thankfully, as high pressure moves off the region, some relief will hopefully be felt in the form of rain. Light precipitation would help contain the fires, as well as clean some smoke from the air. Heavy precipitation, however, would only add to the destruction, as mud slides and flowing debris would cause all new hazards for the region that would have only just stopped burning. Rain is expected for Northern and Central California for Wednesday into Thursday. In most places, rain should be light and mostly beneficial. There is still marginal risk for excessive rainfall, which would easily flood roads and cause murky, debris filled water.
As California’s deadliest wildfire hopefully comes to an end soon, we remain hopeful that those missing will turn up safely, and rebuilding can begin. Rescue operations will be ongoing even after the fires are completely contained, but hopefully, winter will bring cooler, wetter conditions for the west coast.